With a team of Cambodian artists’ contribution to highly-anticipated animation feature film, Funan, The New People, now complete, editor Marissa Carruthers catches up with director Denis Do to go behind the scenes.

Creating Funan, The New People, hasn’t just been a job for acclaimed French-Cambodian director Denis Do, it’s been a life-long personal project; a way to connect with his past and attempt to understand what his mother endured living under the Khmer Rouge.

“My mother wasn’t like a lot of parents who escaped Cambodia and were afraid to share their stories because it might open scars. She was really talkative,” Do says. “You can’t just hear those stories, make a coffee and pretend life is normal.”

Born in the French capital of Paris to Cambodian parents, who fled to France to escape the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Do grew up listening to tales of life in Cambodia under the Pol Pot-led regime. As an avid artist, he would draw on his imagination to sketch the “black suits” his mother would speak of, conjuring up dark figures and scenes.

“I didn’t live through the regime, I don’t feel the pain as the victims of this event, but when I heard her story, it appeared in some way I was linked to it. It was like a tale to me,” he recalls. “An impressive tale of a nightmare period, but it was still very far from me and my French life.”

With the internet emerging during his early teens, Do started researching to put his mother’s story in context. “The Khmer Rouge had started as something from my imagination. Suddenly, it became a historical reality and I had a strange feeling because what my mother had shared was no longer a tale, it was real.”

It was then, at the age of 14, that Do felt compelled to create a piece of work about this. “I knew I had to do something one day,” he says.

It was while studying animation at the prestigious Gobelins, L’École de L’Image, a school of visual communication and arts in Paris, that Do discovered the art of story-telling through animation, and he was hooked. “This ability to tell a story was beautiful,” he says.

After graduating in 2009, he started work on his first animation feature film – bringing his mother’s story to life. He conducted in depth interviews with her and accompanied her to Cambodia to trace back her path.

He then set about creating a team, recruiting a producer and securing funding to bring to life the survival and struggle of a young mother searching for her four-year-old son, who has been torn from his family by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

But Do was determined to create a film “based on a historical story, rather than an historical film”.

“The film for me is a family story with a universal purpose,” he says. “Everyone knows the meaning to be the child of, or the parents of. This is one of the reasons I used animation, which has no borders. In a film, I would use Cambodian actors. Animation means I don’t have to focus on the ethnicity of characters. I’m not showing Cambodians; I’m showing humans.”

Do has also purposely left out any background about the Khmer Rouge, why or how they came into power or details of mass killings – “You can find this online,” he says. Instead, he throws the spotlight on one family’s struggle, delicately delving into the psychology, emotions and motives that drive people.

“We don’t even know who the Khmer Rouge are or who their leaders are in the movie,” he says. “That’s also what people living under the Khmer Rouge felt. They didn’t know who was the leader or what was going on.”

“I discovered slowly as the movie was in development that I’m really linked to my roots; my past,” says Do. Listening to his mother speak of her life and the people who played a role in it, he realised many of them had disappeared.

“I wanted to make them reborn,” he says. “I wanted to show them I knew their lives through my mother, put a picture to their face. It is also a way to show my mother that in some way I understand her story.”

Another important element was that Cambodians be involved in the production in some way. During his visit to the Kingdom with his mum, he scoured the country for partners and producers to work with but came away empty-handed. “I really wanted to involve Cambodians but I didn’t know how,” he says.

A few years later, he found a solution when former Gobelins’ classmate Patrick Pujalte told Do about the company he was working with in Phnom Penh, ithinkasia.

The former DreamWorks animator introduced Do to CEO Justin Stewart and his team of young creative Cambodian animators, and the deal was signed.

With Cambodia’s animation industry in its infancy, this gave Stewart the chance to build his team and recruit 20 talented students to equip them with the skills needed to complete the contract. The team was initially tasked with completing 40 out of 80 minutes of line and colour work.

“This is a fantastic opportunity, not only for the Cambodians artists and us, but to develop the animation industry in the country as a whole,” says Stewart.

Additional work was later added, with the Cambodian stage of the project recently completed, ahead of its worldwide release next year.

“It has been incredible to have Cambodians involved,” says Do. “If we didn’t, for me, the film wouldn’t be complete. This is also their story, and a wonderful adventure together.”

For more information, follow Funan, The New People on Facebook.