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Photos capture ghosts of Kampot

Black-and-white photos of colonial-era villas evoke the times of writer Marguerite Duras

THE old buildings of coastal Kampot and Kep are the subject of a photo exhibition this month at Bophana Centre titled “From Kam to Kep: Pacific Lost Villas”.

French photographer Catherine Griss said she was drawn to Cambodia by way of French writer and director Marguerite Duras (1914-1996), who was born in Vietnam and grew up on a farm in Kampot.

Many of Duras’ books and movies were influenced by her childhood in Cambodia. As Catherine explained, “The jungle never left her, it was always there in her work.”

Griss first travelled to coastal Cambodia in 2007 and found two towns that were mere ghosts of what she imagined they had once been.

In 1931, when Duras moved to France, the Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino near Kampot was brand new, and Kampot itself was a river trade centre with a sleepy charm. Kep would not be developed until the 1950s.

With buildings long fallen into disrepair, the towns have been reawakening in the past 10 years. But for Griss, the old houses hearken back to the time of Duras.

She said her first visit to the region resulted in a photographs that were documentary in approach as she merely captured the villas in the jungle as they stood. During her next visit, though, she wanted to enter the houses and see the lives of the people there.

“Then I discovered the shapes, and the photographs came out of the light. I saw the shapes of the stairs and the windows, and I tried to go on with the work like that – going away from reality,” Griss said.

Although she does most of her work in colour, Griss shot the Pacific Lost Villas series in black-and-white and hand-processed the prints in France.
She said the sweeping forms portrayed in the images meant the prints “must be very, very big … so that you can see the details”.

Griss is now on her third visit to Cambodia, which coincides with a showcase of movies directed by Marguerite Duras. The films will be screened at Bophana Centre on March 15, 17 and 18 at 7pm, and on March 20 at 4pm, and be followed by a discussion about depictions of feminism in the director’s work.

Bophana Centre (64 Street 200) is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 6pm, and Saturday from 2pm to 6pm. The exhibition runs until March 31.

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