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[InC-terview] Cambodian-French animator Denis Do talks about his Khmer Rouge animation 'Funan'

By Say Peng  /  20 Nov 2018 (Tuesday)

Film still from 'Funan'

Set in 1975, Cambodian-French animation film 'Funan' tells the story of Chou, a woman who leads a peaceful life in Phnom Penh until the entire country is engulfed in the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, ran by the despot Pol Pot.

Based on the personal experiences of his family, 'Funan' is directed by Cambodian-French animation director Denis Do. Borned and raised in France, Do was educated at Gobelins, l'École de l'image, which is well known for its animation program. 

'Funan' won the Cristal Award for Best Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival this year. 

InCineamas is privileged to speak to Denis Do about his achingly personal film, 'Funan'. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Photo credit: Embassy of France (Singapore)

Can you share with us the inspiration behind the film?
Denis Do: The film is based on my mother and brother’s personal stories during the Khmer Rouge regime. I grew up with those testimonies from my mum. Maybe the first time she talked to me about the Khmer Rouge happened during a meal. I didn’t finish my dish, so she had to convince me to finish. She said, “You have to respect all the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime because before we had nothing to eat.” As a child, the Khmer Rouge doesn’t really mean anything. I grew up in Paris. It was something very far from me. 

My mother didn’t mention the Khmer Rouge. She said “the black suits men”. For a child, it brings a lot of pictures in my mind. I imagined black silhouette people murdering and trying to hurt people around them. In 1995, my father brought me to Cambodia for the first time. I guess he wanted to connect me to his roots, his country. 

I was shocked to be faced with the reality of Cambodia at that time. The scars of the civil war, the people wounded by land mines. I saw such things everything in the streets in Phnom Penh. This was not something you’re used to if you’re born in France, grew up in Paris. There was a kind of cultural shock. And I denied all connections with Cambodia, Cambodian people, my family. It was not possible for me to accept that I was related to Cambodia. 

In 1997, my whole family went back to Cambodia except my big brother. I remember it because in the first week of July 1997, we escaped to Vietnam. At that time, I didn’t know that we were escaping. During the escape, my mum said, “I don’t want my sons to be faced with the same things as me before.” I was 12, I was not aware of what happened at Cambodia at that moment. When we came back to France, I made some research and I understood that during the first week of July in 1997, there was a kind of coup d’état made by the Minister. The streets of Phnom Penh were surrounded by tanks and soldiers. 

Since that moment, I started to put together all the family stories and I started to make research about the Khmer Rouge. All my imagination broke down and were replaced by real people. I really felt at the moment that the Khmer Rouge are not some fantasy characters, but were real people. 

I understood that such kind of heritage was really heavy to bear and I told myself that one day I will need to make something. Maybe writing a novel or comics. I liked to draw. But life brings me to animation. I took the decision to make a feature film. And the decision was very natural. I didn’t think too much. I had a discussion with my friend during my year of graduation. He told me I should make a film about such stories. So I started like that. 

Film still from 'Funan'

How was the scriptwriting process?
Denis Do: After the discussion with my friend, we were in March 2009. In June, we graduated. In July, I sat in front of my mum. I told her that we had to restart. I needed to collect her testimonies again from the beginning. That’s what we did. We decided also to go back to Cambodia in 2010. My mum and I retraced her past. We met some of her old friends whom she hasn’t met in 30 years. And at that moment, I understood that I have studied animation, but I never studied scriptwriting. So it seems clear to me that I would need a scriptwriter to help me, so I met Magali Pouzol, my French co-scriptwriter, and I also asked a friend to do the graphic design of the film as I wanted to focus on the story. 

During the process, I asked my co-scriptwriter to free herself of Cambodia history, to do not try to look for any kind of information because I wanted her to open the story as much as possible for a wide audience, people who are not aware of Cambodia. She was my guarantee for that. I was afraid to put too much information that people won’t be able to understand during the screening. Also, I found Magali because it was necessary for me to have a female co-scriptwriter in order to write the story of the female character, even if the main character is based on my mother. I tried to avoid some cliches. 

What kind of cliches were you trying to avoid?
Denis Do: I guess when a male writes a female character, we would make the female character strong as the male character. She has to have some kind of typical strength. And I didn’t want that. In many films, female characters become macho in order to as strong as the men. In many films, you see female characters losing their female characteristics in order to become strong as the males. I wanted the main character, inspired by my mum, to keep being a mother, keep being a woman, not trying to become a man in terms of gender.

So it took us seven years, not only for development but also for the funding. The funding process was quite long because in France, we need to have some support from TV channels. But because of the content of the film, it was not possible. TV channels used to support traditional animation, and by traditional, I mean, animation films for children. And my film is not for children, even if young audience really appreciates the film from the experience we had from many screenings before. 

I think it’s really important when you want to write a story, to make a film, to do what you want and don’t try to focus too much on the audience. The audience will follow if the DNA of the film is completely coherent from beginning to end. We needed to be, as much as we can, authentic, in terms of historicity, in terms of the tributes for the characters, for my mum, my brother. 

Film still from 'Funan'

Talking about actors, you worked with two very famous French actors, Berenice Bejo and Louis Garrel. Can you talk about what was it like working with them?
Denis Do: As an animation film, this is not the first thing you think about. You are more concerned about the picture, the story, the music. We don’t think about movie stars. And I don’t think that movie stars bring anything to animation films. But this is not the point of view of the producer and distributor. They thought that to have such actors might bring new partners and would be helpful for the release of the film, to attract audience. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I accepted the idea. 

One of my producers asked me to think about what kind of actors I would like to work with. And in France, we have a wide range of actors. I didn’t want to work with any kind of actors. I quite prefer people like Berenice or Louis because they worked with auteur directors. In terms of identity and experience, they are more interesting. And I believe they would be able to bring something to ‘Funan’. 

So I wrote a letter to Berenice as a nobody. I thought that her agent would throw away my letter, but she answered my very quickly and we had a great meeting. She had read the script and the first meeting was completely dedicated to artistic questions. Few months later, as I had no idea about which male actor I would like to work with, I ask Berenice if she had any idea. And she thought about Louis. At the end, it was quite fast. I sent another letter, had a phone call and, in one week, had a meeting. And the next week, we started to work together. 

It was interesting to work with them also. I didn’t just want them to just put their voice on animation. I wanted them to bring themselves inside the film. They add intentions, they add their emotions. So the animators worked directly with the intentions that Berenice and Louis had put into the film. 

Film still from 'Funan'

Can you talk about the animated films that have influenced the style of your film?
Denis Do: I don’t watch animation as much as people think. I quite prefer live action films. I think I was quite inspired by Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, also Wong Kar-Wai. And also one Iranian director called Asghar Farhadi. I quite love his films. I knew Berenice quite long before. I choose to work with her since I watched ‘The Past’. 

The film is currently in French. Did you consider making the film in the Cambodian Khmer language?
Denis Do: Yeah, it’s a long discussion we had with all the producers. It’s not easy to find good actors in Cambodia right now. I know that some co-producers in Belgium, even the distributors in United States, are interested in the Cambodian version. This is something we have to do. This is quite important to me also, because my mother doesn’t speak French. But she would be able to understand Cambodian. 

What do you think of Rithy Panh and his films? 
Denis Do: Rithy Panh is a huge director. I watched his film, S-21, during a screening in France the first time when I was 16. I guess I was not mature to understand the film at that moment. Then I watched it again and my mind was blown away by the story. I don’t think I was expecting to follow the same way as Rithy Panh. He was a victim of the Khmer Rouge regime. I work with a lot of distance from the Khmer Rouge regime. I was not a child of those events. For example, I think ‘Funan’ will be the first and only one film I will do about the Khmer Rouge. I needed to do this film. It is done. For me, I can turn the page now. This is not especially a subject I want to come back to. If I want to talk about Cambodia again, there are so many subjects, so many stories to tell. 

I will tell you something. During the production of ‘Funan’, I almost stopped the production. I was aware of something. The Cambodia today is too much linked to its own past. When we talk about the past of Cambodia, we used to talk about the Khmer Rouge. I don’t think it will help Cambodia to develop, to be happy, to turn the page, to look at themselves stronger. It will only bring pity and the image of poor people. This is the kind of picture that Western countries used to have about Cambodia. I almost stopped the production because I didn’t want ‘Funan’ to feed this picture of poverty, of poor people in Cambodia. I think Cambodia deserve much more than that. But I decided to continue because the process was launched. But I would never work on the Khmer Rouge again. Because Cambodia should turn the page and Cambodia doesn’t need to always talk about the Khmer Rouge.

Film still from 'Funan'

'Funan' was screened at the 2018 French Film Festival, where the director Denis Do was present for Q&A.
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