Filmmaker’s story of a house bridges Phnom Penh’s past and present

Kavich Neang has already won international awards for “White Building.” The cinematic examination of his childhood home and city spaces will represent Cambodia at the Academy Awards

October 6, 2021
Filmmaker’s story of a house bridges Phnom Penh’s past and present
An apartment building in Phnom Penh shot by Kavich Neang for his film, “White Building.” The structure was meant to replicate his demolished childhood home. Photo: Les Films Du Losange

Kavich Neang dreamed of transforming the story of his life in the iconic White Building of Phnom Penh into a feature film. A dream complicated by the building’s demolition.

“When I wrote the story, it was really based on my memories and experiences in the White Building. Everything I wrote is really from that space,” Neang said. “It was very depressing because I didn’t expect that [the building] was going to be demolished before the script was done.”

As construction of a multi-billion-dollar casino continued atop his childhood memories, Neang completed his debut feature, “White Building,” in 2021. The film tells the fictional story of an aspiring Cambodian dancer coping with the demolition of his home and loss of a community.

To capture the feel of a place no longer in existence, Neang included documentary footage and audio recordings he gathered in the final days of the White Building, while also filming the fictional story in still-standing structures built during the same era.

His goal was to reimagine existing city spaces and turn the emotional resonance of his past into a thoughtful reflection of Phnom Penh’s present.

“The White Building is not only about the place but the city itself,” Neang said about the film and his former home.

The film won the “Orizzonti Award for Best Actor” at the Venice Film Festival, from which Neang recently returned, and will be Cambodia’s entry to the Academy Awards in 2022. 

Suos Sandap, 62, leans against her home in Chak Angrae Leu, Phnom Penh. Sandap, a part-time publication factory worker, previously lived on the second floor of the White Building. Photo: Anton Delgado

The White Building, designed in 1963 by Lu Ban Hap and Vladimir Bodiansky, exemplified the “New Khmer Architecture” wave in the ’50s and ’60s. The White Building comprised nearly 470 apartments in the Bassac development on Samdach Sothearos Boulevard near the Bassac River. The starch white structure was one of the first attempts to offer a multi-story, modern lifestyle to lower- and middle-class Cambodians.

Originally intended to house visiting athletes for the 1966 Games of the New Emerging Forces — a short-lived alternative to the Olympics for socialist nations — the White Building became an artists’ residence following the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge. After hearing a Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts radio broadcast inviting creative professionals to live in the apartments, Neang’s father, a sculptor, moved his family to the community of about 2,500 people.

“I grew up surrounded by artists, performers, singers, architects,” Neang said. “I lived there for almost my whole life.”

Inspired by the community around him, Neang chose to live as an artist and pursue studies in sculpting and classical dance. Growing up, home was a place of sounds.

Neang distinctly remembers the crackle of radios, the chants of monks and the glee of football being played by children in the corridors. Over time, however, the White Building fell into disrepair, attracting drug dealers and sex workers. The sounds of his childhood were replaced by the steady plop of rainwater leaking into the home; Neang recalls his family had to sleep under umbrellas at times.

I feel a strong connection there and I miss them so much… I still keep in touch with them regularly, they feel like family

Suos Sandap was a resident of the White Building for decades. From her second-floor apartment, she witnessed the building’s steady decline to disrepair and eventual demolition. While the costs and difficulty of moving so abruptly were stressful, Sandap said, she also felt “so happy that I finally moved out of the place because the place was like a slum.”

After learning the structure was scheduled to be demolished, Sandap started packing and Neang began filming.

Neang followed his friends and neighbours during their last days in the White Building. The visuals from these last moments led to Neang’s 2019 documentary, “Last Night I Saw You Smiling,” which screened at dozens of international film festivals.

Sandap, who plays the role of a White Building resident, was featured in both Neang’s documentary and film.

“I felt so natural in the film, as if there was no camera around me,” Sandap said. “Because when there was a sad scene, I just had to imagine the time when I was still living in the building.”

With government compensation allotted by square metres, families like Neang’s who had bigger apartments received enough money to afford new homes. Other residents with fewer rooms struggled. 

Regardless of the hardships, Sandap still feels a close bond with other former residents.

“I feel a strong connection there and I miss them so much. The neighbours always helped each other out,” Sandap said. “They have all helped me on various occasions… I still keep in touch with them regularly, they feel like family.”

Chhun Piseth (left) stars as Samnang, an aspiring dancer. Photo: supplied

While the inspiration to become an artist stemmed from the White Building’s residents, an internship with Cambodian Living Arts, an organisation supporting the performing arts, turned Neang into a filmmaker.

Neang studied under Rithy Panh, whose internationally acclaimed films focus on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. To find his own voice, and a style of film based on his experiences, Neang co-founded Anti-Archive, a collective of Cambodia-based filmmakers, in 2014.

“When you grow up here you see that everyone is always talking about the past, the Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat, things like that. That’s why we use the name Anti-Archive, to rethink our past,” Neang said. “I want to talk about my story, really a story about the present. I am the one who was born in this generation, so I want to focus on now.”

The tension between the past and present played a pivotal role in the production of “White Building,” especially while looking for a setting to represent the historic structure in the film. 

“The White Building is unique in Phnom Penh and it took me a long time to digest and accept that it was gone,” Neang said. “But I remembered there were also other buildings that were built in the same time period.”

The realisation that other historic buildings in the city could also be demolished gave Neang a fresh outlook on the film. Ultimately, he settled on the former Institut Pasteur du Cambodge and the Psa Teung market as substitute locations. While filming, he found ways to integrate images and sounds he had gathered in the days before the White Building was razed.

I want to talk about my story, really a story about the present

Neang’s film is divided into three parts, each with its own colour scheme mirroring the emotional development of the story. The symbolism of each section — from the dream sequences of the main character to his father’s surgery — reflect Neang’s arthouse sensibility.

With the “White Building” behind him, Neang is working on new ideas. He hopes to pursue future film projects bridging the gap “between my generation and older generation.”

“When they see the film, [I hope] they can feel that the film is a bit of my family too,” Neang said. “I can see that they give me appreciation for what I am doing. I am happy that they recognise what I am doing.”

Sandap, who now lives in Chak Angrae Leu, is eagerly waiting to view the film and see her contributions.

“I feel so happy for Kavich that the film is doing so well internationally,” Sandap said. “Though I haven’t seen the film yet, I feel so happy and proud of him.”

Since she moved out, Sandap has visited the former site of the White Building only a handful of times. While she can’t see over the fence enclosing the construction site, she can hear the steady hum of development.

Nostalgia fills her each time, Sandap said. Walking past her former home, she reflects on her decades spent within the White Building’s walls and its lasting legacy in Phnom Penh.

Additional reporting by Samphors Sao.

This article was updated 8 October 2021 to correct errors about awards garnered by the film. “White Building” won the “Orizzonti Award for Best Actor” spotlighting new talent, not “Best Actor” or “Best Film,” at the Venice Film Festival.

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