Saturday, July 07, 2012

NYAFF ’12: Golden Slumbers

Martin Scorsese needs to dispatch an emergency film preservation team to Cambodia.  From 1960 to 1975 about 450 films were produced in the Southeast Asian country.  However, only about thirty films survived the Khmer Rouge.  The Chinese-backed Communists considered cinema just another form of capitalist decadence (which is sort of true when it is really good).  NYAFF special guest Davy Chou surveys what was lost with the handful of surviving film industry veterans in his outstanding documentary Golden Slumbers (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Despite seeming to have an “in” as the grandson of once prominent Cambodian director Vann Chan, many of the filmmakers who were able to escape execution (most of whom endured harsh transit conditions en-route to France) were initially reluctant to talk to Chou.  However, Yvon Hem eventually relents, taking Chou on a tour of his long abandoned Bird of Paradise studio (named for the Marcel Camus film that launched many film careers in the country, including his own).  Less reticent is Dy Saveth, the former Elizabeth Taylor of Cambodian film, now working as a dance instructor.  To this day, the hill where she once filmed a climactic scene still bears her name.

Obviously the genocidal murders and forced labor camps are the greater crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Yet, the devastation of the nation’s cinema is not merely a footnote to the wider tragedy—it is a tragedy onto itself.  Listening to the movie patrons and movie-makers discussing their beloved films, now presumably lost forever, is deeply moving.  Clearly, lives and livelihoods were lost, but average Cambodian’s treasured memories and cultural heritage have also been destroyed by an ideology of death.  Watching Slumbers stirs the same emotions as the sight of a charred family photo album at a fire scene.

Slumbers also bear an unexpected but apt comparison to Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, featuring many directors and actors forced to relate their films like oral history.  Yet Chou is able to convey a sense of them through movies posters, radio commercials, and soundtrack records (many of which remain widely popular).  He also stages his talking head interviews in ways that are often quite visually striking, making Slumbers unusually stylish, by documentary standards.

For any movie lover, the loss of any nation’s cinematic legacy is truly lamentable, but it is particularly so in this case.  From the tantalizing descriptions heard throughout Slumbers, many of the popular Cambodian films of the pre-Khmer Rouge era sound like high-end Bollywood, but incorporating darker supernatural and mythological elements.  Though it is impossible to know with certainty, if you are attending other NYAFF screenings, there is indeed a strong likelihood these films would have been your cup of tea.

One can only hope Chou’s documentary leads to the re-discovery of some of these lost treasures in forsaken film vaults someplace.  Nonetheless, as a film in its own right, Slumbers is quite accomplished.  It is an intelligently constructed and elegantly executed cinematic elegy that absolutely puts to shame the vacuous tributes to Hollywood glamour of recent vintage.  Profoundly moving, Slumbers is one of the best documentaries selected for a major festival this year.  Earning the highest of recommendations, Golden Slumbers screens this coming Tuesday (7/10) at the Walter Reade Theater.