On the ground floor of the colonial-era Battambang hotel La Villa, a young waiter slouched against a wall under a yellowed map of Cambodia. He wasn’t taking orders. The place had never been so quiet. In a whisper, the curly-haired French manager assured a couple booking dinner reservations that the restaurant would look a little livelier in a few hours.
“Silence, s’il vous plait!” a voice hissed from the top of the staircase.
Last Friday, the cast and crew of Le Portail, or The Gate, were in the middle of filming a delicate scene from the historical drama, an adaptation of ethnologist Francois Bizot’s memoir of the same name. Their voice recorders were so sensitive, the manager said, that they could pick up the sound of tables and chairs being moved below. As a result, the hotel, with its European-style tiles, silent gramophone and historical wall-hangings, had, even more than usual, the feeling of being frozen in time.
For the past two weeks, the sleepy riverside town of Battambang has been taken over by a film crew headed by director Régis Wargnier, whose 1992 release Indochine won the Oscar for best foreign film.
The cast of the film adaptation now under way is reported to include Raphaël Personnaz (who featured in Anna Karenina) and celebrated French actress Catherine Deneueve, who starred in Indochine, as well as hundreds of Battambang expats who have been dolled up in 1970s-style makeup and outfits to play the assortment of diplomats, journalists and miscellaneous foreign nationals who feature in the memoir. Over the past two weeks filming has taken place at more than a dozen locations in and around the city, including La Villa, authorities say.
One of the hotel’s seven art-deco style rooms was transformed into the living quarters of the French embassy in Phnom Penh during the chaotic days of late April 1975, after the Khmer Rouge had captured the city and foreign nationals scrambled to leave. Some 50 crew members were in and out of the hotel over two days, according to the hotel manager, Corinne Darquey.
“They booked the first floor, and I didn’t see them, they just came and put all their things in there,” she said in a phone interview a few days later. The daughter of a teacher at the French school in Phnom Penh, she lived in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge takeover but left in 1970 and observed the filming of Bizot’s book with particular interest.
“I read the book a long time ago. It’s part of Cambodia’s history,” she said.
Filming began in January in Koh Ker, a temple complex some 120 kilometres from Siem Reap that was for a short time the seat of the Angkorian empire. While the film’s producer has closed the set to media, and representatives declined to comment, it could be that the scenes shot there will comprise the portion of the book which covers the three months Bizot spent imprisoned in a Khmer Rouge camp in 1971.
During his time in captivity, Bizot, a French ethnologist who was in the country to research ancient Buddhist texts, held extensive political conversations with Khmer Rouge commander Kaing Guek Eav, who went by the nom de guerre Duch. He would become the chief of the notorious prison Tuol Sleng, or S21. But at that time, Bizot writes, Duch, who he called comrade, had yet to take his place in the museum of horrors.”
Duch survived the regime to become a born-again Christian and it was in 1999, when he was exposed by journalists, that his former captive, Bizot, decided to put memories to paper and publish The Gate.
As well as detailing the horrors he endured in the jungle, a large portion of the book is given over to the time spent at the embassy. As a fluent Khmer speaker, Bizot negotiated the flight of foreign nationals to Thailand.
His memoir details some of the harrowing scenes that took place at the compound’s gate, as Cambodians were either turned away from, or forced out of, the embassy.
Some 39 years after the actual events, the filmed re-enaction took place in Battambang’s governor’s residence: a grand mansion that dates back to the early 1900s, with high walls and wooden shutters.
Last weekend, the expansive grounds of the residence, now used for the workings of the provincial government, had been transformed into a refugee camp, littered with khaki tents and sandbags. A classic car was parked in the drive, and film trucks emblazoned with the Cambodia Film Commission logo, two reels, were stationed in the courtyard. Across the road, the building that usually serves as the tourist department was mocked up as a fake Korean embassy.
Police closed the surrounding roads with red and white plastic tape. Not that it stopped most pedestrians and motorcyclists, who simply walked by, or drove by, on the pavement.
Soeum Bun Rith, the vice-administrator of Battambang’s provincial government, said the authorities had helped co-ordinate the shoots during the crew’s stay, which lasts until Wednesday. The market was closed for half a day, he said.
Other locations included Ek Phnom temple and Banan temple among a total of 15, he added.
“The [film] company are happy that the provincial government helps and encourages them to have a film in this province. We don’t even think much of money from them, but just only an incentive to the authorities who help them hand-in-hand.”
Speaking on Monday, Henk de Jong, a local school principal who has lived in Battambang for 10 years, said the crew had filmed at the city’s 1960s-era central market the day before.
Not everyone, he said, was delighted with the experience.
“Some locals and some guests were not too happy because they closed off the road,” said de Jong, who was cast as an extra in the film.
“But local businesses and hotels were happy, because it’s a big crew,” he added.
So too were the expats, some 200 of whom were recruited as extras.
“Battambang expats have a Google group and the main fixer for the movie company, he emailed us asking for extras,” said de Jong.
Once enlisted, they were sent an email with photos of suggested outfits to bring: black and white polaroids showed men in paisley and floral shirts with very high-waisted trousers and shaggy beards.
For some, the costume extended to facial hair.
“I was not allowed to cut my hair and I had to grow sideburns,” said de Jong.
He was hired to work on one day, Thursday, for which he would be compensated $50.
“I would have loved to do it every day, but I just don’t have the time,” he said.
Locals say the arrival of the film company was an unprecedented event in Battambang. But it doesn’t seem much will change in its wake. As film trucks left La Villa with the last of the equipment on Friday night, a policeman dozed nearby in a tuk-tuk. By 7pm, dinner was back on.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.