As thick rain clouds gathered over Phnom Penh yesterday morning, award-winning director Rithy Panh stood beside the gates of Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre looking decidedly chuffed.
Around him, a group of cinephiles, film curators and experts spilled out of one of the centre’s classrooms after attending an animated conference on film archiving, preservation and restoration – the first of a string of seminars on film heritage and part of the Memory! International Heritage Film Festival, organised by Bophana and the Parisian film preservation body the Technicolor Foundation.
It was the end of a weekend of golden- age glamour in the capital as the festival opened with a screening of one of the late King father Norodom Sihanouk’s films with his son King Sihamoni in attendance, and 1960s-inspired Dengue Fever brought psychedelic music back in style at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC).
The nine-day event launched on Saturday with a screening of La Joie de Vivre – a glimpse into the decadent lives of Cambodia’s blue-blooded in the 1960s: a powder-blue Cadillac, gambling soirees, shimmying go-go dancers, Kep mansions and polygamy.
The film was screened in another ode to Cambodia’s 1960s heyday: the fan-shaped, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, designed by legendary architect Vann Molyvann (who attended on the night). What had generated the most buzz beforehand was the fact King Norodom Sihamoni would be there to watch his father’s film on a high-quality projector shipped from France.
“The King was there, other royalty, high-ranking officials and ministers, ambassadors, young budding filmmakers, normal Cambodians and foreigners … This doesn’t happen every day you know… It was magic,” the 49-year-old Pahn, who scooped up the Un Certain Regard award for The Missing Picture at the Cannes Film Festival last week, said.
By dusk Chaktomuk’s manicured lawns were full of suits, sampots and sweeping floor length gowns. Guests included artists, fashion designers, international model Kouy Chandanich, ’60s actress Dy Saveth and filmmaker Davy Chou.
However, what Bophana archivist and research analyst Chea Sopheap said was most special was the crowd that gathered outside the hall once the reel had started to roll.
“I took a moment outside the theatre… There were crowds on the street looking in. They had information booklets and they all said they wanted to see old, Cambodian films, the rest of our program . . . People returned to access lost memories.
“The King was smiling the whole way through. I suspect he was very happy to rediscover his father’s film, on a big screen, in this building, with great quality sound,” he said.
“[King Sihanouk] provided this window for us. This document on how royalty and others were living back then, what a great, tangible piece of history for us to look back on,” he said.
Panh mused that the screening had prompted dialogue on why the well-designed and well-preserved Chaktomuk wasn’t used more often.
“Molyvann was a genius. We worked with a sound engineer from France, he was walking around measuring acoustics all night and he said it was some of the best sound he’s ever heard in the region, professionally.
“They should program more events here, in two or three years who knows, maybe it will be an art centre with something different every night. If you don’t open up spaces like Chaktomuk, little by little you will lose the art forms.”
Panh said he hoped the festival’s schedule, a blend of old Hollywood productions, French cinema and Cambodian classics would help to make film and its history more accessible to young people.
Actress Dy Saveth, who acted in a number of films of the late King Father, said she had shed a tear during the screening.
“It was a great memory. I feel honoured that Rithy Panh has come back with other groups to revive this industry here. We have some great concepts, talents and creativity here right now.”
Along with the screenings, the much-loved Khmer-American psychedelic rock Dengue Fever, who are inspired by the likes of 1960s crooners Sinn Sisamouth, and Pann Ron, will perform on Wednesday night as part of Memory! on Koh Pich – a free concert they hope locals will embrace.
On Friday night chanteuse Chhom Nimol, the group’s frontwoman, bellowed out both originals and ’60s covers from the band’s five albums before a heaving crowd at Phnom Penh’s tourist-friendly FCC.
In Siem Reap’s venue of the same name the following night, more than 30 fans clamboured onto the stage with the band to chant the revered Ros Sereysothea hit “Glass of Wine” .
The six-member band, formed in 2001, has garnered acclaim from around the globe (they’ve played at WOMAD, Glastonbury and Melbourne festival, while Ray Davies from the Kinks hailed them a “cross between Led Zeppelin and Blondie).
This is their fifth tour on Cambodian soil, and the impressively bearded guitarist Zac Holtzman said it was always significant and emotional, particularly for Nimol, to come back.
More recently the band were part of the CLA organised Season of Cambodia event in New York, which Holtzman said had been a “beautiful experience … [The gig] sold out, there were 800 people.”
The band were introduced to the Memory! festival through their filmmaker friend Davy Chou, who directed Golden Slumbers, and said they planned to attend many of the screenings.
Holtzman emphasised it was important that the band play free shows in Cambodia. “The last time we came we played a free show on Koh Pich, a benefit for CLA, it was the biggest show … I would not want to play shows that were exclusive.
We want to make sure Cambodians that may not be able to afford a ticket can get to see us.”
For more information about screenings see: memoryfilmfestival.org.