Neang Kavich's White Building is showing exclusively on MUBI starting April 13, 2022 in most countries in the series Viewfinder.
During the demolition of the White Building in May 2017, I asked my father about his feelings while he watched everyone in the building, including his family, pack their belongings to move out of their homes. He sat in the wooden chair, rubbing his prosthetic leg and observing my family members cleaning up the house after finishing all the packing. He looked a little tired and emotional.
I asked him, “How are you feeling when you see your home like that?” He didn’t hide his feelings, but it took some time for him to express in words that he was not feeling well after living in the building for nearly four decades since 1980, and suddenly he had to move to another home.
He said to me, “You should burn incense as an offering to the house. It’s where you grew up and studied. It’s the place that gave you life.” As someone who grew up and lived in that historic building for a long time, this moment gave the experience of leaving my home a lot more meaning. At the end of the day, I felt really shocked to see my home was slowly dismantled, with its window frames, doors, and roofing taken apart. It’s very painful for me to see it as White Building was my own home and where I spent the first 30 years of my life.
The city of Phnom Penh is being transformed. Old buildings are disappearing, taking swathes of our past with them, while condos, malls, and modern air-conditioned stores pop up everywhere. But what has changed most, I’d say, is the rhythm of the city. Its inhabitants are more stressed as it becomes harder to go at their usual pace. I consider myself a witness to these changes.
I started work on this project in 2016, planning to make a feature film about young dancers in the White Building, but the long process of writing and obtaining funding slowed me down while things were speeding up in real life. When the demolition was confirmed, I couldn’t focus on writing any longer. I felt compelled to capture what was happening on a camera lent to me by a friend. I filmed my family and neighbors with a small crew. As it went along, however, the documentary found a voice and existence of its own, and it became Last Night I Saw You Smiling, which was released in 2019. It influenced the feature film I had long been developing. In the documentary, I felt passive with regard to the evacuation of the apartment where I lived with my parents, powerless to fight overwhelming forces. On the other hand, Samnang, the young protagonist in my feature film White Building, is my alter ego, but in reverse, in the sense that he observes what’s going on but is not passive. He asks questions and tries to make his voice heard. His father in the film is like mine. His toe became infected due to diabetes, which happened to my father in real life.I feel that Cambodian society is a bit sleepy in general, people are not really proactive or expressive. So I thought that presenting a boy dancing and dreaming of dance stardom would bring a bit more energy. But Cambodian society is often unwilling or unable to break out from its sleepy norm. Although the film begins in an energetic way, full of the energy of a youthful memory of one fine day among best friends, it gradually falls back into the normal rhythm, and restraint, of life in the country. It was my effort to try to be more active, as a depiction of a fictional life or as a reaction to the real-life situation I could not change, but maybe in reality it was impossible.
As I started casting for Samnang and the other main characters, I found it difficult to find a “professional” actor in Cambodia to do this kind of film, because their acting is a bit more suitable for mainstream melodrama. So it was more about finding someone that fit the role than someone with formal film experience. But the first-time actors I eventually turned to would often struggle to understand what exactly I was looking for. Maybe I wasn’t always clear with myself what I was looking for. They assumed that actors just recited a script, but gradually I found myself pushing them instead to be themselves and to find themselves in their characters, even if it meant going off-script on occasion. This is how we built the characters together, and slowly, after the first of five weeks of shooting, they realized that they could share more of their own selves through their fictional roles. I could finally see how the characters I had developed in my script and in my head related to the real lives of young people around me in the building and in the city.
This film was inspired by my personal experience after living in the White Building for such a long time. When I started this project, I wanted to make this film as my memory of the building through the life of a young man and his family. But ultimately the fiction of this character and his family became easily understandable in the reality of most people living in the society around me.