Every person’s path is different. While some people build careers with the support of their families, others have to make their own way. Neang Kavich is a filmmaker who started from scratch, and forged his own trail.
The White Building was an iconic Phnom Penh apartment building that was demolished in 2017. It will be replaced by a new 21 story commercial building. The building was one of the legacies left by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who order it built in 1963 to serve as a residence for low-paid artists and civil servants.
Kavich’s family was one of almost 500 who lived in the building. He grew up in classical art circles, which certainly had an effect on his later life.
Until 2010, he studied traditional music and dance, with tutoring from his neighbours. The instruments and the movements could not hold his interest, and he began searching for his true passion.
He had the opportunity to attend the Bophana Centre, and discovered the world of film. With support from friends and mentors, he completed his first short film in 2015.
His debut short Three Wheels, was selected for several international film festivals.
In 2019, he released a documentary, Last Night I Saw You Smiling, which follows his and three other families as they prepared to move out of the White Building.
The experience led him to incorporate some of his own childhood into his most well known work, The White Building, an emotional feature film which followed the final days of the storied building.
The film won a Special Selection Award at the Venice Film Festival in Italy in 2021, and has been screened in many cinemas around the world.
Kavich had to overcome many obstacles to achieve this level of success, however.
One of the chief barriers he encountered was earning the understanding and appreciation of Cambodians, who often placed little value on locally produced work.
“I try to make my film the best they can possibly be, but I believe it will take time to change people’s perspective of domestic cinema,” he said.
“What I try to do every day is to inspire and support younger people who may be interested in working in the film industry,” he added.
The industry faces a huge shortage of skilled people, but Kavich understands that it has to develop naturally.
He continues to work as a producer, and is working on a new script.
He said the new project will not be based on his personal experiences, but conceded it was difficult to write from a totally different perspective to one’s own.
One of the reasons for the success of The White Building was that because he had been a resident of the building himself, he was able to capture his own feelings and those of his family.
“It does not matter where you start or what you want to reach, the most important thing is not to let the past decide your destiny,” the filmmaker said.
Kavich’s work and legacy are regarded as impetuses for positive change.