Dy Saveth is one of the most beloved actresses from the 1960s era of Cambodian film – and one of the few to escape death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The former beauty queen appeared in dozens of films including favourites such as Norodom Sihanouk’s Twilight and was lucky enough to be outside the country when Pol Pot overran Phnom Penh. After 18 years in France, she returned to Cambodia in 1993 and has since become a regular in Cambodian films and on television, as well as inspiring a new generation of actresses as a fine arts teacher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. In the soon to be released and much-anticipated film The Last Reel, she plays a famous Cambodian actress in the twilight of her life. Will Jackson spoke with her.
Why did you decide to be a part of The Last Reel?
I liked the script because this is a real story, not a copy. When you watch television these days so many Cambodian films just copy the stories from overseas – from Thailand or China or Vietnam. I don’t know why they don’t come up with their own ideas. In Cambodia we have a lot of stories to tell.
What are the similarities between you and the character you play in the film?
I was never told if the character was based on me. We’re actually quite different because the actress I play stayed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, whereas I left. If I had stayed I probably would have been killed. I think about it sometimes, how lucky I am. In March 1975, I went to Thailand to visit my children who were studying there. I wanted to come back to Cambodia but there were no flights. I tried to organise a taxi and they told me I was crazy so I stayed and then went to France.
The young actress Mary Neth plays your daughter in the film. Did you have any advice or tips for her?
She’s a very nice and charming young woman. She had no need of any of my help.
What do you think of the current generation of actresses?
Most just want to be beautiful and glamorous. They don’t care so much about the story. The films these days tend to avoid difficult subjects. The writers just focus on rich, modern families, not on real situations, such as people living in poverty, so that the actors can remain beautiful. Before the Khmer Rouge the stories were about real life, about the people in the villages.
What’s it like making a film now compared to before the Khmer Rouge?
It’s much easier and quicker. Special effects that would have required cumbersome camera work back then can just be done on computers afterwards. Before, if I was in a film and there were two of me, people would leave the cinema in awe saying: “How was there two Dy Saveths in that film?”. Now people just know that it’s a computer doing the work.
You had an 18-year break between leaving Cambodia your return. Why did you start making films again?
When I went to France I became another woman. I never talked about being an actress. During that time I was only recognised once. I was working as a flower arranger with a florist in Paris and a Cambodian woman came into the shop. After a few moments, she exclaimed: “You’re Dy Saveth! I recognise your lips and your eyes.” After she left the shop, to tell her husband who she had met, my manager turned to me. “You were an actress?” he asked. Even when I came back to Cambodia in 1993, I wore a big hat and glasses so no one would realise who I was, but then one day a man who worked for a television station recognised my voice. He put me on television and I’ve been in 10 films since then. I think it’s my destiny to be in films. Every time I try and do something else, I cannot.
What are your plans for future projects?
I would like to continue acting in other people’s films. I also have a few ideas for films. One of the stories I’m working on is about the poor children that sell flowers and small desserts in the street. But I want to produce it with my own money. I don’t want to have other people telling me how to do it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.