Tatsuhito Utagawa, a 27-year-old freelance filmmaker from Tokyo, had no inherent interest in Cambodian silk when he first visited the country in 2014.
Then he met fellow countryman Kikuo Morimoto, whose own passion for Khmer traditional silk weaving awakened Utagawa’s fascination. Morimoto dedicated himself to silk weaving’s revitalisation and preservation until his last days – the subject of Utagawa’s new documentary film premiering locally tonight.
“He told me that pieces of silk produced by machines all look the same while each piece of the hand-made silk is the only one in the world because of the differences in its weaver’s moods,” Utagawa said.
Traditional weaving almost died out during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, imports of cheap silk and chemical dyes are the norm, and much local weaving is of poor quality.
A kimono master artisan from Kyoto prefecture, Morimoto founded the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles in 1996, in Prek Sneng village in Siem Reap. He brought a few women with the necessary skills and knowledge from across the country to the centre so they could share their expertise. The institute eventually transformed the forested village into a self-sustaining textiles community, now home to more than 160 people.
When Morimoto told Utagawa that he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and would only have a few years to live, the young filmmaker got the idea to shoot the film.
Cambodian Textiles focuses on the terminally ill artisan, as well as the people in the community keeping the silk-weaving tradition alive.
For more than two years, Utagawa shuttled back and forth between filming in Cambodia and working in Japan. At first, he was worried about how Morimoto would handle the filming, given his health – until it became clear that the movie was only motivation to live longer.
“There have been many documentaries about him, but he wanted to see this one finished,” Utagawa said. “While I was staying with him in Siem Reap, he always asked me about the process whenever I was back from filming in the village.”
Morimoto was not able to see the last documentary about him, however, as he passed away in July in his hometown, where he had returned a few months earlier.
In the film, Morimoto is upbeat most of the time, even talking and laughing casually about his pain and the approaching end of his life. When he was hospitalised in Japan after finding a tumour on the back of his head in 2016, he was still thinking about his institute and community and chatting with staff by video.
“When he was first told that he had cancer, the doctors recommended several treatment options, including surgery, but he refused all of them,” Utagawa says. “He told me that he wanted to live his life naturally with his beloved staff and their family.”
Earlier this week, Utagawa arrived in Cambodia for the international film festival. Before coming to Phnom Penh, though, he went back to Prey Sneng village, where he found the people in the community working normally, though they expressed remorse at the loss of their leader.
“Although I have already expected his death to come, I still miss him,” he said.
“What saddened me the most is that the chair which he used to sit on while talking to me is now empty.”
Doo Marn, a manager at IKTT, says there will be a few challenges for the institute, especially in financing and transportation, without Morimoto, who used to seek help from his international friends, but the villagers are committed to continuing his lifelong mission.
“When we saw him off at the airport, no one had expected his death, and we still feel that he is alive,” Marn said. “He was a good and generous boss – a tree that protected all of us from heat, and we will not let his effort go in vain.”
Cambodian Textiles will be secreening tonight at 7pm at Major Cineplex – Aeon, with the filmmaker present.