In Dreams: Golden Slumbers at the San Francisco International Film Festival
Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, showing this week at the San Francisco International Film Festival, looks at the Cambodian film industry in the 1960s and 70s before the Khmer Rouge, and underscores the power of collective memory in the face of great trauma and oppression. Focusing on moviemaking in particular and Cambodian pop culture in general Golden Slumbers is an ethereal dream of a film, with people listening to old music, looking at film fragments, and reminiscing about people long dead. The movie is a testament to the power of using artmaking and storytelling to overcome great emotional and psychological scars.
The documentary starts with a sustained shot from the back of a moving vehicle as it travels down a road in modern-day Cambodia. This simple image conveys the long journey the Cambodian people have gone through as they’ve passed from the happy years of the 1960s and 70s through the national nightmare of the reign of the Khmer Rouge and back again from that great upheaval. Although Pol Pot’s genocidal regime was overthrown in 1979 the damage from that time period still lingers in Cambodia’s collective memory. Cambodia’s commercial film industry produced upwards of 400 films in the decade or so preceding the Khmer Rouge yet fewer than a dozen films now exist. Movies were deemed corrupt and most film prints were destroyed, with film directors and movie stars targeted and purged by the regime during its four-year reign. Golden Slumbers documents the traces of the once-thriving industry through ephemera including film stills and posters, fragments of soundtracks, and most significantly, interviews with the few surviving members of the Cambodian film world of the time.
One director managed to escape to France where he lived for nearly two decades before returning to Cambodia. Another happened to be among the 180 out of 1000 from his village to survive the Khmer Rouge massacres, although his wife and several children were among those killed. Another actress also fled to France, where she keeps a wall of photographs, postcards, and other mementos from lost Cambodian films. She notes, “If I remember the pictures, it’s like they’re still alive.” Her statement as well as others throughout Golden Slumbers suggests that keeping alive the memories of those martyred can vanquish the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge and that the key to defeating and outlasting those crimes is through human remembrance and a refusal to give up on the hopes and dreams of the people.
At one point the film visits a former movie palace that has become an indoor favela, housing over 100 families who squat the building. The residents there also have vivid memories of the films that they saw before the Khmer Rouge and can easily recall their plots and storylines. It’s as if the movies become symbols of happier times before the great national trauma of the war, taking on the status of myths or fairytales. At another point in the film one man sadly notes that he can’t remember the faces of his lost family members, yet he clearly recalls the faces of the actors from the films.
The film ends with footage from some of the lost Cambodian films projected on a brick wall in one of the repurposed movie houses. Current residents watch the footage in thoughtful silence as the images flicker on the segmented wall. The lines of the bricks fragment the pictures but they remain clear and focused, suggesting their resiliency despite their near-destruction. Cambodian movies thus become the immutable repositories of the country’s memory and mythology, preserving its vital stories even after the Khmer Rouge’s violent attempts to rewrite and obliterate them.
By illustrating the important place these lost movies hold in the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people, diretor Chou shows how the films have become a means of resisting brutality and persecution. Golden Slumbers is an elegaic tribute to a country and a culture that has survived despite near annihilation.
Other notable films in the festival by Asian/American directors include Johnny To’s Life Without Principle, which delves into the questionable morality of Hong Kong’s world of commerce; Wu Xia, Peter Chan’s detective/swordplay/martial arts movie starring the lovely and eminently watchable Takeshi Kaneshiro; Hong Sang Soo’s The Day He Arrives, another odd meditation on life, film, and neurosis; and Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, Ramona Diaz’s glorious and energetic real-life fable about Arnel Pineda, the Filipino singer from the shantytowns of Manila who became the lead vocalist for the classic rock band Journey.
For tickets and information go here.