The Last Reel (plus a quick plug for the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival)

The Last Reel portrays my belief in the overwhelming human need for stories and storytelling as part of the reconciliation process.

Sotho Kulikar, director, The Last Reel

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately – particularly Cambodian stories. In the lead up to the inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (which starts today) I’ve been busy putting together a panel of writers to talk about what it means to be a Cambodian storyteller in 2015. There are so many directions in which such a conversation could move – traditional versus modern forms of literature, publishing opportunities, translation – and I can’t wait to see what ideas come out of the discussion. But at the core of any conversation about art, I think, sits the (often unspoken) question – What is it for? Particularly in a place like Cambodia, a country that is still recovering from war, where basic survival (food, water, shelter) remains for many people a daily struggle. Why are you writing, painting, dancing – when there isn’t enough to eat?

But – slowly, perhaps, but surely – things are changing in Cambodia. People still work hard, but they are now also more able to find time for creativity. I am in awe of the young Cambodians I meet who run their own businesses, study at university, and still find time to write. Once our basic physical needs are met, we are able to move on to more abstract necessities. One of those necessities, as Sotho Kulikar points out, is reconciling with the past.

Cambodia suffered a period of violence so devastating it is almost impossible to comprehend. Many Cambodians find it difficult to talk about. The aftermath of war often brings with it a sense of meaninglessness, chaos, a loss of hope. How do we deal with this? How do we move on – without forgetting or repressing the past – to create new life, new hope? This, I believe, is why stories are so important. Stories allow us to give meaning to something that seems absolutely meaningless; they allow us to create new narratives that don’t hide the past but help us to understand it. And the very act of creation is hopeful in itself – it motivates, inspires, and makes us believe that things can be better. Such is the power of imagination.

With The Last Reel, director Sotho Kulikar and writer Ian Masters have created a film that brings together Cambodia’s past and present. Through Sophoun (Ma Rynet) we learn just how strongly the war is still felt forty years later. As Kulikar notes, ‘History has left its scars on her [Sophoun’s] parents’ generation in a way that continues to impact on the present.’ Sophoun feels her parents’ pain almost as if she has experienced it herself (a scene that places Sophoun back in time, moving through the spaces her parents moved through during the war, is particularly memorable). But Sophoun is also the key to healing – she is able to help her mother and father remember and grieve for the past, and show them that there is a future waiting to be created.

The Last Reel is important because of its subject matter and the way in which it uses story to both recognise and reconcile with the past. However, it’s also important to me on a more personal level; that is, as a foreigner living in Phnom Penh. This film allowed me insights into Khmer culture in a way I haven’t experienced since reading the translated collection of short stories ‘Just a Human Being’ (edited by Teri Shaffer Yamada). Watching The Last Reel I recognised so many places and customs that I see every day, but never really understand.

It should also be noted that The Last Reel is simply fantastic filmmaking. The music, the lighting, the wonderful locations (such as the old cinema/motorbike parking garage). There is a beautiful blend of past and present – flashbacks are done with great sophistication: my favourite is a scene where the cinema owner (played by Sok Sothun) remembers showing films for people sheltering in the theatre as the city was being bombed. The performances are incredible – Dy Savet is heartbreakingly subtle in her portrayal of Sothea, Sophoun’s mother. Likewise, Hun Sophy gives an amazing performance as a man haunted by the violence of his past. All of these characters are incredibly relatable, and sympathetic. They are all flawed, all human. History is so complicated – and that I think is where the hope comes from in this story. Bad actions do not necessarily make bad people. Lives can be turned around.

There is great sadness in this film, but there is also hope. And there should be both. Crying for the past shows our respect for it, for the people that suffered, for all the culture that was lost. Looking to the future gives us strength. Stories allow us this balance.

From the mid-1960s to the 1970s Phnom Penh was known as the ‘Pearl of Asia.’ As Ian Masters notes, it was ‘the golden age of Khmer cinema.’ However, of the more than 300 films that were produced at that time, only around 30 have survived. There are sadly similar stories about other forms of Cambodian art – about a year ago, for example, I met a writer who had lost almost all of her poems during the war.

I watched The Last Reel at Aeon mall, and stepping out of the cinema – still dazed and a bit teary – into the glare and noise of Dairy Queen and Daiso, my heart sank slightly at the thought of how far Phnom Penh now seems to be straying from the cultural city it once was. I find myself easily disheartened by the constant construction of luxury apartment buildings, the new Burger Kings, KFCs and coffee chains. Those are the things we see on the surface – the big, the bright, the glaring. But then I remember one of the main reasons I love Phnom Penh, and why I have stayed so long. And it is the sense of culture, and tradition, and beauty that sits between the hotels and the banks. It is Java Cafe, with its dedication to promoting Cambodian arts and literature; it is the Nou Hach literary journal; it is open mic nights and galleries around the city, and films like The Last Reel (which I really hope more people – both Cambodians and foreigners – will have the chance to see!)

It is also why I’m feeling so optimistic about the writers festival this weekend. The Khmer writers at KWRF are harnessing their imaginations to create something new. It’s an exciting time for film and literature in Cambodia – a time for remembering and appreciating the past, but also for creating the future.

The Last Reel is Sotho Kulikar’s directorial debut. It was filmed in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang (Cambodia) in 2013. For more information go to their website www.thelastreel.info.

The Kampot Writers and Readers Festival begins today (Thursday 5th November 2015) and runs until Monday 9th. The program is available here. The panel I’m coordinating (‘Being a Cambodian Writer in 2015’) is happening on Sunday 8th, from 12-2pm at The Columns in Kampot town.

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