Old Films, New Stories and Sifting For Clues

I got another clue the other day.

That’s what I feel like I’m doing: sifting around this city for clues. I’m working on my Glimpse project, which is really a personal project, a mammoth undertaking of which the writing is only the very end result, a small part of the process.

What I’m trying to do is reconstruct a story—a story of the past, that was only ever told in fragments, and now those scraps are all that’s left. I’m trying to string them together, make some sort of linear, coherent narrative, though I’m not sure why or what it’ll accomplish or change or relieve.

Because there’s not a linear, coherent narrative. There was once, perhaps, but it’s gone now; the chance to know it is gone too. And the silence and the blank spots, the unknowing—they tell a story too. They tell a story I know much better than the scraps themselves. It’s a story I’ve locked away, in my own kind of silence—a story as foreign to me as the dust and traffic of this city, the microbes in the water, floating in an unseeable dance.

And here’s the other thing I’ve been thinking: what the fuck for? Aside from the huge, glaring fact that it isn’t my story, or is only tangentially my story—my own story is still too dim to know, to touch or hold or let alone tell—aside from that, there’s the Why. Why do we seek out the past, feel a need to understand it, or at least know it—a past we didn’t even live? What does it accomplish or change or relieve?

I went to Bophana yesterday, sat on a straw mat in a corner of a dim room with no fan, and watched New Year Baby. It’s a documentary by a Khmer-American woman about her search to learn about her family’s history and war experience, what was always kept a secret from her. There seem to be more and more foreign-born Khmers doing this—traveling back to Cambodia, seeking out answers, trying to find the full story, the reel from which they’ve only ever seen clipped stills.

It was an excellent film. But the question that kept ringing through my head was Why? What’s this need in us, drive in us, all of us, to know where we come from? And what does it mean for the generations growing up in silence?

In any event, 500 words later, here’s the clue I got. I met with Sithen Sum, director of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer. It’s a collective of young Cambodian filmmakers—the “next generation,” as they’re called here. I’d met him at the opening of the Vintage shop, where repaintings of Cambodian Golden Era film posters intrigued me.

We met at a Western cafe. I was dry-mouthed and bleary-eyed from an all-night bout of traveler’s stomach, but I refused to miss our appointment. We sat in the air-conditioning and talked about the organization’s work: the short films they’d made, the way they’re all volunteer-run, doing all the projects in their off time from other jobs, full-time, money-earning jobs.

The organization grew out of a 2009 exhibition curated by French-Khmer film maker Davy Chou focused on reviving 60s and 70s Cambodian films and bringing them to the public.

Trailer for Chou’s upcoming documentary about Cambodian film revival

Chou led workshops and classes in film making, and inspired the formation of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer. The group has gone on to make a few of their own films, with another to be released in May.

“It started as a revival,” Sithen told me. “We see the old cinema as a bridge to make something new, to create something of our own.”

Trailer of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer’s first film, Twin Diamonds

It was so simple, so succinct: to make something new, they have to know what came before them. To know who you are, you have to know where you come from. Artistically, I’ve always known this is true—where would I be without the works of all those writers I’ve adored that came before me? You need to lineage to build on, whether its a family tree or a film reel.

This was the clue, staring me in the face, living inside me—that took someone else’s words to realize.

“We love the old films like realitives,” he said. “But we’re also critical of them.” They especially don’t like the universal practice of voice dubbing used in the old films. The group is more influenced by foreign methods, Sithen admits; they want to apply foregin knowledge to make new films. “We don’t want to go back to the past,” he told me. “We want to learn from both the successes and mistakes of the old films.”

They want to know where they come from.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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