After attending a screening of Dream Land at the Torino Film Festival last month, one woman complained that she “saw no images of Cambodia” during the 90-minute film.
It was not intended as a compliment, but director Steve Chen didn’t mind.
“We really erased a lot of what you would imagine to be typical images of Cambodia,” said the Chicago native, speaking via Skype the day before he flew to Phnom Penh for the local premiere of his film.
For Chen that meant no temples, no Khmer Rouge, and no poverty. “In this film you only get little glimpses even of the street life,” he said.
“If you make the things you’re used to seeing invisible, then you can see a different reality.”
Dream Land, the first feature film from the architect-turned-director, is an unusual film to be made in the Kingdom. Referred to by Chen as a “broken love story” about a real estate saleswoman who finds herself feeling increasingly distant from her boyfriend, it has only a loose linear narrative, and a strong art house aesthetic that prioritises mood over plot.
“I expect people to not really understand what’s going on, but that’s ok for me because it’s really not about the plot anyway,” he said.
Shooting the film meant a big adjustment for his leading actors Duch Lida and Nhem Sokun, both of whom had previously started in local flicks.
“It was hard to understand the director even though we had a translator, because the director’s concept was different from Cambodian concepts,” said Lida, who is best known in Cambodia for her work as a model and her part in Khmer comedy-action extravaganza Sbek Kong.
“People who understand about art and acting skill, they could like this film,” she said, referring to Chen’s understated style that relies largely on improvised dialogue. “But I don’t think Cambodian young people will like it because they mostly like to watch love stories.”
But if Chen is pushing boundaries, he’s doing it in good company. Dream Land was co-produced by the new film house Anti-Archive: a collective endeavour that Chen established last year along with two of the most successful indie filmmakers in Cambodia, Davy Chou and Neang Kavich.
French-Cambodian Chou, best known for his 2011 film Golden Slumbers, said that Anti-Archive was the next step in growing the country’s independent film industry.
“There’s not so many movie houses doing that in Cambodia, so it was interesting to open one,” he said.
He explained that the name Anti-Archive was partly intended as a “joke”, but was also an attempt to push back against an unreflective reliance on Cambodia’s history when making art about the country.
“The idea is to invite filmmakers and also audiences to try and rethink the relationship with the past, not to keep it something frozen.”
Steve Chen, who has been visiting Cambodia for work since 2009, said that he wanted to make a film that was about the preoccupations of young urbanites in the capital – “more about what they’re experiencing from their hearts rather than what we [as foreigners] think is important”.
For Chen, Phnom Penh’s under-construction satellite cities are a particular source of fascination: “they’re half built, but they feel like they’re half ruins already,” he said.
His film plays with the feeling of alienation that these sites prompt for his protagonist, but he said that he was not trying to pass judgement on the development trajectory of the Kingdom.
“I’m not going one way politically about them. But they are a reality and a fact of life in Cambodia – what effects do they have on the life of people?”
It’s an ethos similar to Chou’s.
This week, Chou will begin shooting a full length feature film under the working title Diamond Island – the second film by the director that takes as its inspiration the spit of rapidly developing land to the east of Phnom Penh. Kavich and Chen will be working second camera for Chou for the duration of the project.
“I want to deal with the present of Cambodia and this special moment of transition,” Chou said of the new film, which tells the story of a man reunited with his absent brother while working on one of the island’s construction sites.
“Diamond Island is one of the best windows to the new Cambodia,” he said. “I wanted to explore this place that symbolises so much about modern Cambodia.”
To date, Anti-Archive’s projects have been limited to the work of its three founders.
As well as co-producing Dream Land and Chou’s upcoming film, Anti-Archive have been involved in making Neang Kavich’s short films Three Wheels and Goodbye Phnom Penh. Addressing the benefits of the film house via email, Kavich explained that “when I made my own films, I faced a problem finding producers in Cambodia to support my film projects.”
“[Anti Archive has] mainly supported the projects by finding more people and crew to support the projects both financially and technically and submitting the films to international film festivals.”
In future, the trio hope to expand their remit to helping other young filmmakers.
“We would not be the distributors, but we can bring it to the right people,” said Chen.
“Their hunger is the most important thing they can possess. So as long as someone can come along and help them, it’s actually pretty simple.”