French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou’s first full-length feature, Diamond Island just won the screenwriter’s award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival
Tell us about your latest film. What inspired you to make it?
I feel that Diamond Island, which is an island next to Phnom Penh where billions are spent to build the most modern area of the country, symbolises many aspects of the current transformation of Cambodia. But what fascinated me the most and made me want to make this film is the impassioned and cruel relationship between the Cambodian youth and the myth of modernity in action in the country. The starting point was the connection between Diamond Island and, on the one hand, the people building it and, on the other hand, those who meet up there when night falls.
How did the filmmaking process differ to shooting [2011 documentary film] Golden Slumbers?
What I learnt is that a feature gives you less room for improvisation, as the schedule is much more strict, with tons of constraints each day. But then the challenge is how to still find space for creativity, improvisation and adaptation, despite this.
Why did you choose to tell the story of Diamond Island through a fictionalised lens rather than making another documentary?
As an audience [member] and as a filmmaker, I’m very attracted by the power of fiction. Not just to tell a story, because documentaries do tell stories, but mainly how to create characters, trajectories, dilemmas. Also, I wasn’t interested in making a film about a subject. I don’t think Diamond Island is ‘talking’ about workers in Cambodia. It tells the story of characters, in their individualities and personal journeys.
Why did you decide not to use professional actors?
I had to, in a way, as it’s hard to find good professional actors in Cambodia. I chose my main cast mainly based on my intuition that they would be able to reveal themselves as actors. We went step by step, and they first learnt to look at each other, to move their bodies, express their emotions. For me it was fascinating because I could see them growing and gaining confidence in themselves, and their personalities also influenced my writing: I changed the characters, first because what the actors revealed to me was sometimes much more interesting that what I had imagined, and second because it was easier for the actors to play something close to themselves.
You had to work quite hard to get Diamond Island ready in time for screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Was it worth the effort?
The editing was sometimes painful, because we didn’t have a break since the shooting, so I was really tired and sometimes felt I was lacking distance from the film. But we kept working, going from one version to another, and one day the film appeared to us. Of course, as a French-Cambodian filmmaker, it makes much sense for me to show the film at Cannes, and I’m proud to show some images of modern Cambodia at the most prestigious festival in the world.
What advice would you give to aspiring Cambodian filmmakers?
It’s not too hard today to find a camera, to learn how to use it and to shoot a film, so my advice wouldn’t be much on practice but more on the thinking behind a film: it takes a lot of time to understand the art of cinema, and I always push aspiring filmmakers to try to be more curious, to discover new genres of film, to develop their tastes and sensitivity, in order to enlarge their vision of what cinema is capable of. Lastly, I would advise them to try not to write a story because they feel it will please the audience, but to write it because it’s personal, they feel connected with it and because there is a deep reason why they want to tell it.