"Our generation has been working on things to fix and heal
KAVICH NEANG, 26, FILMMAKER
Kavich Neang at just 26 years old is a seasoned Cambodian filmmaker. His first middle length documentary “Where I Go”, which reveals racism in Cambodia, has been screened at the Cambodian International Film Festival (CIFF), International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Mumbai Film Festival, the Lincoln Center, and other film festivals around the world. His latest short film “Elephants Seeking Shelter” was recently shown at Phnom Penh’s Our City Festival during the I Jorng Jam event (I Want to Remember).
(Watch the short trailer of Where I Go. Then read the full interview below)
Kavich was born in 1987 and grew up in the White Building, an iconic building in the heart of Phnom Penh designed by the renowned Khmer architect, Van Molyvann in the 1960s. He went to Sisowath High School, attended a short film course at the Asian Film Academy (a program of Busan International Film Festival) and recently graduated in Professional Design in Limkokwing University in 2013. In 2010 he was selected to make a documentary under the guidance of Oscar nominated filmmaker Rithy Panh, to produce his third short documentary “A Scale Boy”. He is a member of Kon Khmer Kon Khmer (Cambodian Film, Cambodian Generations), a Cambodian youth film club where he works with Khmer youth to produce films in Cambodia.
I interviewed Kavich to get his experiences in growing up in the White Building, why he chose filmmaking to express himself, the importance of nurturing the arts for the youth, and the future of filmmaking in Cambodia.
Q. What was it like growing up in Cambodia, particularly in the White Building?
A. After the fall of Khmer Rouge regime, my parents moved to live in the White Building in the 1980s and I was born in 1987 in Phnom Penh. I have lived there for almost my entire life. Everything in the building now is not like when I was a kid. In the past, I would easily find people playing Cambodian traditional music and dance around my house. I had a good neighbor and everyone in that family was an artist, dancer or musician. Almost everyday at noontime I heard them sing and play Cambodian music. We were close and they would sometimes teach me how to play their instruments. Later on in the 1990s those artist families started moving out.
After that, strangers started moving in. Then, the White Building became a place of anarchy, where people would come for prostitutes and drugs. There were many thieves and groups of young people like gangsters living there. My parents always kept me and my other siblings inside our house because they were very afraid that we would get bad influences from those people. Consequently, this building had a notorious reputation and many people would not go in or even drive by there.
I grew up as a boy surrounded by those images in my mind. Sometimes I felt unconformable to tell people that I am living in the White Building. However, I am now very happy with what I am doing. Nowadays, the White Building is a place where people could find interesting things to see like art galleries, Cambodian music and dance classes. I now have a dream in my future and I hope all my work will be shared and heard by Cambodian people.
Q: How did you manage to stay away from the bad influences that were surrounding you in the White Building?
A. I think because we lived there very close with those images surrounding us everyday, so in my family, my parents often explained to me and my siblings to understand how life becomes more difficult if we would get those bad influences and they always urged us to think how to get rid of those influences. I still remembered one thing from my parents was education is the only way we could get out of those bad conditions, and also to make our life better in the future.
Q. What were some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to be where you are today?
I think confidence and hard work are the most challenging. I always think to stay positive and encouraging myself is a must. If I find my own way to enjoy what I am doing then I never feel like I want to give up when I’m faced with problems.
A. What sparked your interest in filmmaking? Why did you choose film making to express yourself?
I never thought that one day I would make films. In 2008 I was working in Cambodian Living Arts studio to assist a sound-engineer and video editor. I found that I had a good time practicing and learning all materials in the studio, like camera and video editing programs. Later in 2010, when I was selected to attend a documentary-workshop led by Rithy Panh, I was urged to watch many documentaries and films with other students. We talked and discussed about what we understood from the movies. Every time when I watch good films, I feel very connected with protagonists and I remembered even their conversation, feelings and problems. When I make films I always feel and dream about it every time and this is how I became interested in filmmaking.
Q. Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
A. I haven’t found the most influential person in my life yet, but my family is the most important. Sometimes I see them and people around me as influential people. I learned from their opinions and ways of thinking.
Q. What are your favorite films of all time and who are the film directors that inspire you?
A. My favorite films are Taxi Driver and Ragging Bull directed by Martin Scorsese in the 1970s and in 1980s. I never get bored to watch these films again and again. I think Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite film directors so far.
Q. You are a member of Kon Khmer Kon Khmer (4Ks), a club that helps mentor youth in filmmaking. What is the mission of 4Ks and why do you think it’s important to teach Khmer youth filmmaking?
Kon Khmer Koun Khmer’s mission is to produce quality film initiated by Cambodian youth and organize film-related events of high impact. I think 4Ks is a good place where people can come and meet different people. Everyone can learn and inspire each other. When you find good people and teams, it is good for your own projects and everyone else. Lee Chang Dong, (a Korean film director & writer and my dean at Asian Film Academy 2013 at Busan International Film Festival) would say, “making films is important, but making friends is much more important.”
Q. In your recent film “Where I Go” you explored racism in Cambodia. What did you learn in making the film? What are some of the other issues facing Cambodia would you like to explore in your films?
A. Through the making of my film “Where I Go” I have discovered myself and learned more about Cambodia’s past and present. First, the film talks about what happen to Pattica’s life, the protagonist and then it shows the problems in his family. All those became my interest and fascinating to understand the whole story of his family. Then, I interviewed and followed his mother. I saw her living with husband on the street; they worked in the daytime in construction houses and collected garbage at the nighttime. Everyday, I stayed with them and I saw them eat and sleep. They were drug addicts and spent all their money on drugs.
After that, I stayed with Pattica’s grandmother and I learned about their struggles in poverty. His grandmother gambled in her village. Most of her children didn’t go to school and they worked in beer gardens to support the family. I think these are a part of my film “ Where I Go” talking about Cambodia’s society in the present time.
For the past, during the period of the United Nation Transitional Authorities in Cambodia (UNTAC) here, I was a very small boy and I didn’t know why UNTAC was here and why they left. Sometimes when I was walking on the streets, in the market, and school, I often heard people making jokes about the UNTAC periods, but I didn’t even know how UNTAC looked.
Later on, after I met Pattica it became my desire to go back to that history of Cambodia and learn more about it. I hope through this glimpse of Pattica’s story and my experience working on this film, I can share and get other Cambodian people interested to learn more about this part of Cambodia’s history because I think it is important. UNTAC is a period that happened right after the fall of Khmer Rouge. I learnt a lot about the Khmer Rouge but I didn’t know much what happened right after that regime. All Cambodia history is linked, it is very important for me to know all what happened in the past so it would help me to understand what will happen in the present and future.
Q. In your short film “Elephants Seeking Shelter” you filmed your father, and portrayed glimpses of his life as a sculptor and a soldier. Why was this particular project important to you?
A. The film is important to me because I wanted to learn more about my father through this project. I have lived with him for more than 20 years, but I didn’t know very much about his past experience. When I looked at his photos with a soldier uniform and holding a gun, I was wondering why I never discovered that before. I was very interested to learn how he became a sculptor. His recent art works are wonderful and inspiring. I wanted to learn more about his experience. I felt moved when he explained about his interest to learn about the arts of carving when he was young, but that he was not permitted to learn it because of his father’s desire for him to have a good education and to not follow his father’s footsteps into the profession. But he was so interested that he would try to learn by observing, and would hide while doing so.
When his father would take his daily breaks, he would sneak into to his workshop to learn from his works. He told me that one day, he became very interested in the carving of animal figures. In order to learn how to carve them, he decided to catch a frog and tie it up to see its shape. He would then draw the frog shape on a piece of wood and teach himself how to carve the figure. He forgot to untie it a few days later and the frog was found dead. So far, I have found many inspiring stories that I never knew before through this project.
Q What projects are you currently working on and what projects do you have in the pipeline?
A. I am planning to extend my short film “Elephants Seeking Shelter” into a feature length documentary-fiction film based on my father’s story which talks about how his past experience has influenced his daily life and future. After the Khmer Rouge, my father moved to live in Phnom Penh and then he became a sculptor. He likes to create his art works related to his experience and dreams. At the same time, I am working on my short fiction film for the first time.
Q. So many artists and films perished under the Khmer Rouge. Filmmaking has made a revival. Where would you like to see Cambodia’s film industry in 10 years and what do you think it will it take to get there?
I am optimistic about Cambodia’s film industry. In the next 10 years there will be more young and talented filmmakers. I am very happy now that I have my own dreams and aspirations. Also, I am very thrilled for Cambodia this year, Rithy Panh’s film, The Missing Picture, won a prize in Cannes International Film Festival and now is nominated for the Oscar. I hope this is a good moment for Cambodian people not to remain regretful about their past experience, but it is a good time for our generation to look to the future. I will keep my fingers crossed for Cambodia for the first time winning the best foreign film in Oscar. All this good news will be inspiring to young people and filmmakers to produce more films in the future.
Q. You’ve been able to build an impressive body of work at a young age. What advice would you have for young people who may be struggling but want to follow a similar career path?
A. I think the most important is to keep following your dream and stay on what you are doing. Making friends and learning from others’ experience is a good thing. If you were surrounded by bad influences, for my opinion, try to control yourself from those influences and create your own interest and jobs. Start setting your plan for future goals, and then follow it. Find your own ways when obstacles come, and be always positive and enjoy your life moment. I hope those activities can help them to stay away from those influences. Another way is to be a positive influence to people around you as well.
"Dancing in the Building" (2009) is one of Kavich's earlier projects. The short film documents the vibrant community of artists living in the White Building. Watch it below (9min, 15 sec).
To learn more about the White Building visit: www.whitebuilding.org
To learn more about Kon Khmer Koun Khmer visit:
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