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Lord David Puttnam lectures at the Bophana Center.
Lord David Puttnam lectures at the Bophana Center. Vireak Mai

"The Killing Fields" producer shares his wisdom

Celebrated filmmaker Lord David Puttnam had stories, observations and tips to share during a visit to Phnom Penh this week. Poppy McPherson reports.

In a small, brightly lit screening room at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, 21-year-old Sokhy Chea listened to a speech by the producer of The Killing Fields, the Oscar-winning film that drew the world’s attention to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

It was the day after another acclaimed film about Cambodia, Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, had been passed over at the Oscars and the producer was talking about the next great film to come out of the country.

It would be about a bicycle, he said, and showed three clips from films from different countries which all make use of the motif.

“You couldn’t tell me that you couldn’t make a great Cambodian film about a bicycle, because I wouldn’t believe you,” he said.

But Chea, patiently watching in the second row, already knew that. He had a secret. He had already made a great film, and it was about a bicycle.

Aspiring filmmaker Chea was one of a crowd of about 25 young Cambodians crammed into the room to hear the master class given by Lord David Puttnam, a well-spoken 72-year-old Englishman with round ruddy cheeks, who is also something of a Hollywood legend. He counts among his successes Chariots of Fire, Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express as well as The Killing Fields.

As far as acclaim goes, he has won 10 Oscars, 25 BAFTAs and the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. He also held the chairmanship of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988. He was a big deal. In the 1990s, however, he took up politics and retired from filmmaking altogether, though he still gives classes.

In November 2012 he was appointed as British trade envoy to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, and was in Phnom Penh for several days this week in that capacity.

His history in Asia stretches back decades. The first time he came to Cambodia was in the 1980s. The Killing Fields, filmed in Thailand, had been recently released.

He has followed the region’s transformation ever since. In an interview before the lecture, he expressed his irritation at the outcome of the foreign language Oscars race, when The Missing Picture was passed over in favour of Italy’s entry, The Great Beauty.

“I personally didn’t like The Great Beauty. I thought it was dull. Long and pretentious. Predictable. And Italian and irritating. All of which is completely quotable, I don’t mind at all. I feel quite strongly about that – most irritating.”

The Missing Picture was “terrific” and “really, really, smashing”, he said. But the film was disadvantaged at the Academy Awards by its categorisation as a feature film, rather than a documentary, he added.

“There was real confusion over the categorisation, so that probably cost it quite a lot.

“On the other hand, and I’ll never be able to prove this, I don’t believe that a large number of Academy voters sat for three hours of The Great Beauty. I think what they’d read is that it had won Cannes,” he added.

Over the course of his career, Puttnam has observed Hollywood’s shift in orientation towards Asia and in particular Chinese moviegoers – the biggest market in the world.

“I think the most important message that must be getting out – or two or three messages – is that a Chinese film won Berlin, that’s extraordinary. That the Cambodian film was nominated. And that a Chinese audience now makes up the biggest market in the world. Filmmakers tend to follow the money. So what you’re seeing is a time in history where the centre of gravity is going to shift.”

The front row at Lord David Puttnam’s lecture.
The front row at Lord David Puttnam’s lecture. PHOTO SUPPLIED

How will that change the way films are made?

“The most immediate change will be that you will not see Chinese villains in the movies. That will be the most visible and immediate effect. One of the reasons you’re seeing these superhero figures who are kind of anonymous is because, for the moment, American cinema doesn’t know how to cope with the phenomenon of not knowing who its villains could be. Maybe, post-Ukraine, Russians could be back in favour as villains.”

Puttnam was speaking days after Russian troops headed towards post-revolutionary Ukraine, sparking global outrage.

For Puttnam, the situation reminded him of an “extraordinary story” in which Cambodia, Kiev and The Killing Fields – celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – converged.

“I wouldn’t make this up, because of what’s happening in the Ukraine,” he said.

In 1985 he was sent by the UK government to Kiev, where there was a festival celebrating Britain’s relationship with Ukraine. Puttnam screened The Killing Fields to a large audience of 16- to 20-year-olds. Afterwards they held a question and answer session.

“Not one single question was about Cambodia or about Southeast Asia. It was all about the Ukraine. I had not been very well briefed by the British Council in that I had not really understood the religious tensions, political tensions. I hadn’t really got my head around that but it’s all they wanted to talk about: could this happen in the Ukraine? Under what circumstances could this happen?”

Almost 20 years later, Puttnam was at the World Economic Forum’s Davos annual meeting, just after the Orange Revolution in 2004. Walking down the corridor of his hotel, he bumped into Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yushchenko, who happened to be with a friend of his, so the pair stopped and Puttnam was introduced.

“The Ukrainian president didn’t speak much if any English and I heard him say, ‘blah blah blah, Puttnam, dah, dah’, and ‘The Killing Fields’, at which point he literally picked me up – this big guy, and he’s dancing with me, like a dancing bear.”

Yushchenko said he had seen The Killing Fields, which was shown in all the schools in Ukraine. “He said, ‘during the revolution, all the problems we had, no one ever talked about civil war. It was never going to be a civil war.’ And he said, ‘I promise you, what we got from your film is what countries do to each other in a civil war.’”

So The Killing Fields may have stopped a civil war – or, depending on the outcome of the next few months, simply postponed one. It also put Cambodia on the map.

But, for Puttnam, the experience cost him, physically – it was his most tiring film.

“I remember at the end of it – this is not bullshit – knowing I could never, ever, in my life do that again. I could never repeat that experience, I had given too much.”

“I was thin as a rake.”

Puttnam struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), a debilitating condition that causes exhaustion and weakness.

When asked about how it affected his life, he laughed quietly. “You should ask my wife. I’m still here.”

His wife, Patricia or Patsy, a glamorous woman with tortoiseshell glasses and a scarf tied around her waist, who was sitting a few rows back, answered.

“It was awful. You were never sure what caused it. Maybe it was one too many things. Definitely the transatlantic flights, being asked to do something and something and something, then it always seems to click in, doesn’t it?”

“Patsy said she sees I get black under here, what she calls ‘marmoset eyes’, and she knows it’s coming,” Puttnam said.

“You learn to cope, that’s the best way to put it. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve ever not done because of it, but I’m just that bit more cautious because of it.”

He has few regrets. As for his advice to the young filmmakers, his main intention, he said, was to “demystify the film industry” by illustrating how one simple idea can lead to major films.

“You can’t be encouraging, all you can hope is that what you say becomes encouraging. My experience tells me that the more you try to be encouraging the more you end up sounding like some lecturer, and everyone quite rightly switches off. But if you get your message right, they can go out feeling encouraged.”

After the class, everyone gathered in the foyer of the centre, talking excitedly. Puttnam took some more question from a gaggle of apprentices.

Chea from the second row introduced himself, with a big grin on his face. He has watched The Missing Picture three times, in three languages, and has already made several short features.

In the one about the bicycle, a poor young man comes to Phnom Penh rides in from the provinces looking for a wife and – the rest’s under wraps.

“It might not be a commercial success, but at least I will have expressed myself”, he said.

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