All things return to Phnom Penh’s White Building for Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang. The 29-year-old was born and raised in the iconic building and has since moved back as he prepares to make a feature-length fictional film about it.
The project will be based on his experiences growing up there as well as the neighbours who influenced him throughout his life, he says. He also plans to shoot on location but the production process is still a way away, having just completed the film treatment. Next up is the script.
The film will be his fourth as a director and third as a writer, but that doesn’t make the writing process any easier, says Neang.
“The first draft is very important as a filmmaker because you need to pull [together] all of your ideas and the feeling of the film you want.”
While he hopes to cast his neighbours, the star of the film will likely be the White Building itself, which has a complex backstory that could rival any fictional character.
Now known for its dilapidated appearance and rumours of “crime”, the low-rise apartment building was Phnom Penh’s first experiment in social housing when it was built in 1963 by renowned Cambodian architect Van Molyvann.
It survived the Khmer Rouge years, and after the war became a hub for artists, according to Neang, whose father is a sculptor and painter. “My parents moved to the White Building in the 1980s right after the Khmer Rouge collapsed, so I grew up and was raised by an artist community of musicians, dancers, performers,” he recalls. This inspired him to go into the arts.
In the mid-1990s, the building began its long decline as artists moved out and crime started to rise. Today, the building is visibly crumbling and sits at the beginning of a long strip of massage parlours on Sothearos Boulevard.
However, it is still a beloved spot for many Phnom Penhers. As rumours swirl about its possible demolition, the film is one way to preserve the memories, Neang says.
While the White Building is surrounded by eyesores, a few blocks away the neighbourhood has gone through considerable gentrification. It’s not all bad though, for Neang, who likes to hang out at some of the new cafes and bars.
He starts his day with a cappuccino at Feel Good Coffee II on Street 29 and, on occasion, ends it with a gin and tonic at Le Boutier on Street 308 or Top Banana on Street 278, where the people-watching is excellent.
In between, Neang writes primarily at home and by hand in Khmer before he translates his work to share with his colleagues at Anti-Archive, a new production company he runs with fellow filmmakers Davy Chou, Steve Chen and Park Sungho.
Two grants from France and South Korea allow him to work full-time on his film, although he does sometimes take on other small projects.
Having recently taken some time off to participate in Cambodian International Film Festival, which featured Anti-Archive production Diamond Island, Neang now has several months of hard work ahead.
He’s working at a steady pace, before the grant money runs out, which means it might not be too long before the White Building features on the film festival circuit.