Premiering this month, The Man Who Built Cambodia documents Vann Molyvann’s legacy during a time of change in the Kingdom. Director Christopher Rompré discusses profiling the country’s most revered architect. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Lucas Veuve.
What drew you to filmmaking?
I came to Cambodia in 2010 and ended up getting my start in professional filmmaking. I had been studying international development, but my father was a passionate photographer, and I had grown up being interested in photography. I didn’t want a typical NGO job. The World Food Programme offered for me to do a documentary, and it just clicked. The thing that drives me is to understand people, to dig deep into what motivates them. Documentary filmmaking is great because you can observe people; you spend time looking at little things people have in their houses, the way their body has become hunched over time. You start to pick up these little details that are subtle but paint a picture of someone.
Why did you choose this film?
The film was this amazing accident. Haig Balian, the producer and co-writer, and I were talking and were astonished nobody had done a major work on Vann Molyvann. We thought it would be nice to do a little weekend project. As soon as we started, it became clear it was way more important to Cambodians than I had realised. Vann Molyvann agreed to meet, and once we met him, everything changed. I realised very quickly that this story was a lot more interesting. So this weekend project turned into our first serious documentary. We spent two years on this film.
What is it about?
This film at its heart is about Vann Molyvann’s attempt to create a post-independence Cambodian identity that drew on the richest parts of their ancient history but was also fundamentally new. He wasn’t focused exclusively on the physical architecture; he was concerned with the way architecture expressed a Khmer identity. Even today, most of his misgivings about what’s happening in Cambodia are centred on the loss of this identity, and his disappointment at seeing it cast aside in favour of what he would consider to be shallower aspects, like greed.
What is most interesting about his story?
It’s fascinating that he was, along with the King, part of this movement to create a new Khmer identity in the 1950s and 1960s. The King wanted bold new architecture that represented something non-colonial, and Vann Molyvann had all these ideas. After [he fled] during the Khmer Rouge era, there’s this strange echo. He arrives back in the mid-1990s at the invitation of the King. He imagined it as a resumption of this visionary time and quickly realised his brand, strong opinions and state-driven vision of development was not the order of the day. These two chapters that seemed so similar end up being so different.
Why is it important to tell now?
Well, from his side, he feels the urgency because he’s reflecting on the end of his own life. I think for Vann Molyvann it is about calling on Cambodians to recapture a strong vision of what it is to be Khmer, and not let that be cheapened. He’s not preoccupied with preserving his legacy as much as trying to urge people to preserve what it is to be Khmer. This is, in his mind, a time for change.
Does the film have a message?
I had grand visions of making a statement about development in Cambodia, and at a certain point I just let go of that. The more time we spent with [Vann Molyvann], the more it felt like to use [his] story to tell another is a bit disingenuous. Now it’s really simple and far more focused on letting Vann Molyvann be himself.
When is the release?
In Cambodia, the plan is to have a launch event at Chaktomouk Theatre this month, and then organise a series of screenings at universities. Internationally, [the plan] is to submit it to festivals. We feel like it’s of a calibre to be submitted, and that’s one of the only ways it would get seen outside Cambodia.
What was most interesting about the process?
I think the most interesting part is [realising] if you have a good idea you can just go out and make the film. We certainly had an incredible amount of good fortune – Matt Dillon [volunteered] to be in it. [He] has been quite involved in Cambodia since filming City of Ghosts. He found out about the film and offered to narrate [it], and that’s really going to help us in getting the film out internationally. But we had never done a project of this scope, and it felt very empowering to realise you can just go out and make a film. There’s nothing really standing in your way.
What was the most work?
You’ll see a whole bunch of archival material, and a lot of shots appear for one or two seconds, and you don’t realise we spent months and months scouring every last spot we could think of to get these little shots. And they pass by so quickly. All the things you think are going to be really hard sometimes are outrageously simple, and other things you cannot believe are so hard. Neither of us fully understood what we were getting into, but it’s pushed us both to be much better filmmakers. It’s been so much more than I expected, and I’m pretty thankful for that.