When Davy Chou came to Phnom Penh in 2009 for the documentary Golden Slumbers, he thought it was the only film he’d make in Cambodia. But he returned. Fresh off a tour of festivals – including a screenwriting award at Cannes – his first narrative feature, Diamond Island, is set for its Cambodian premiere. The film follows the lives of young people barreling toward an uncertain future on Koh Pich. The director sat down with Audrey Wilson to discuss working with amateur actors, the time-space continuum and ‘new Cambodian cinema’
What were the challenges of making your first feature film?
It was difficult, I have to say. You involve so many people that trust you as a director. It’s a lot of pressure. And also directing actors was the big challenge. So I just took the bull by the horns: With my assistant director, we spent three months training them. We made them stand and look each other in the eyes. It’s difficult: to look at people is rude, especially between boys and girls. They were so shy. So we trained them to do that. We also couldn’t introduce them [too quickly].
How did you decide to use first-time actors rather than trained professionals?
It wasn’t a decision, it just totally made sense. It just felt obvious that this story was to be interpreted by real people. I’m not making a pure realist film, because there is a lot of fantasy – there is a lot of work on the artificial dimension of [Koh Pich], this dream and the image. But at the same time, I wanted to have this real vibe of people: the way they look, they way they look at things.
Searching for ‘sensitivity’
When Nuon Sobon walked the Cannes red carpet in May with Chou and two other cast members, it wasn’t just his first premiere – it was his first time outside Cambodia. Sobon, like each of the film’s stars, had never before acted professionally. He’s a taxi driver. Chou and his casting director spent four months searching Phnom Penh’s construction sites, markets and streets for the cast. “I wanted to find a look: the eyes of wonder,” Chou says. “All these kids, even though their lives are f—ing difficult… Many of them have this curiosity about what is new. I don’t know if it’s hope, but it’s the projection of something that I wanted to capture in the film.”
Chou ultimately selected Sobon, who had come to the first day of casting, for the lead role of Bora. “He had exactly the sensitivity I was looking for,” Chou says. Sobon had come to the capital from his home in Kampot province. “I asked him, ‘Why did you come?” Chou says. “I’ll never forget what he said: ‘When you met me, I went back and talked to my family. They laughed at me: how could I be an actor?’” Chou mimics. “He knew they were right, but he wanted to prove them wrong.”
Who is your audience here in Cambodia?
I have no idea yet, and that is what is exciting and sometimes frightening. To show it here now, it’s very special. These are the people I was inspired by, and they’re going to judge if the film is good or not. I want to know if they recognise themselves in the film or not. I didn’t just invent this out of my bubble, but based it on who I interviewed, the stories I heard. It’s not just about the story – but it’s really about the vibe. Can they connect with the feelings of the characters, this mix of hope and despair?
Golden Slumbers looked at Cambodia’s past [the films of the ’60s and ’70s]. Why in this fictional feature did you focus on the present and future?
It came very instinctively. I recognise a kind of similarity between the two approaches in my mind. For Golden Slumbers, it was about the past – but I wanted to see if the present of the past could be felt in our present. Here, it is the same. It is somehow feeling the future from the present, from the projection of the characters and the country. Capturing the feeling in the future, but staying with my eyes in the present.
What are your hopes for the film from here?
Honestly, I just got back a few days ago – for the first time since February, when filming ended. There were all these crazy things in Cannes. And this summer, I re-edited it a little bit, so the final version will be screened for the first time here in Cambodia. It’s a small film. If you look at the big local films at the box office, they have some very big stars; they are big comedies or horror films. And of course I don’t have any of that. But somehow, I want to believe that the film can attract people because it’s totally different. Everyone is always talking about new Cambodian cinema, revival and stuff. But I would like people that are not usually filmgoers just to hear the story about the film, and to give it a try. It’s something for a film to be successful abroad, but of course its real place is here.
Diamond Island's invitation-only premiere is on Wednesday, October 26. It will have its nationwide release on Thursday, October 27.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.