Emerging Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang has a deep personal connection with the White Building, an iconic structure that was demolished in 2017.
Neang’s fiction film “White Building” has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons strand, and the filmmaker has also explored the subject in the Rotterdam-winning documentary “Last Night I Saw You Smiling” (2019).
The White Building was built in 1963 by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian architect Vladimir Bodiansky, in the middle of Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge regime, it was completely empty as the whole country was forced to leave their homes in the city, and many of them were killed during that period.
Post-Khmer Rouge, many artists, painters, Cambodian classical performers, traditional musicians, singers, circus performers and sculptors returned to their homes, and some were invited to live in the White Building.
“My father was one of the sculptors,” Neang told Variety. “I was raised there for my entire life.”
When plans for the building’s demolition were announced in 2017, Neang witnessed all his neighbors and friends packing their belongings to leave.
“It was a nightmare, and it was really painful to see all that happen,” says Neang. “Sometimes I could really imagine the actual White Building, hearing the sounds from the empty corridor during the demolition in my mind again. Even now, for me, time is very confused, stuck between the past and the present.”
Neang documented the process in “Last Night I Saw You Smiling,” while also thinking of his original feature film project about the White Building, co-written with Daniel Mattes; that project was at the 2016 Busan Asian Film Market.
The fiction feature follows three friends as they are forced to move out of the building.
“Making this fictional film was like revisiting the former White Building, and I also tried to reconnect my spirit with the space again,” said Neang. “In Cambodia, politically speaking, people are not always free to speak out their thoughts or opinions. I think White Building is one of hundreds of stories that need to be revealed.”
“The demolition of the building actually freed me from my obsession with my home, and forced me to look at the other historic apartment blocks around Phnom Penh which are facing similar threats of demolition,” Neang said. “We ended up shooting the film in two other buildings, and we found each one had communities of their own which reminded me of my former home.”
The process of financing was long, but actively championed by Cambodian filmmaking collective Anti-Archive, with Davy Chou as producer. Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s Xstream Pictures came on board, as did French company Apsara films, led by co-delegate producer Marine Arrighi de Casanova, who is a French producer with Cambodian heritage. It received support from the Cambodia Film Commission, Pour un Sourire d’Enfant School of Media, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and the Cambodian Cinema Dept. Another Cambodian production company Kongchak Pictures joined as co-producer.
Les Films du Losange is handling international sales on the film.
International funding came from Fonds Image de la Francophonie, Visions Sud Est in Switzerland, Germany’s World Cinema Fund Plus Europe scheme, and the French CNC’s Aide aux Cinémas du Monde production support. Post-production support from Doha Film Institute followed, and the project later won the Torino Film Lab’s Audience Design Fund.
“I hope to share this wonderful honor with other Cambodian fellows, filmmakers, artists and people who are also facing similar challenges in making their artworks,” Neang said of the Venice selection.
Next up for Neang is a film where traditional Cambodian parents learn that their young daughter will soon have a child outside of marriage.
“I’m still interested in family stories and relationships between the older and younger generations, between parents and their children, and the consequences of these two meetings,” said Neang.