Day 5 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project
When I first arrived in Cambodia I thought I was there to make a movie… a music documentary that would also be a film that could serve as a portrait of Phnom Penh and life in Cambodia. I’d arrived with a little Sony handycam and set about gathering images, ideas and a ‘feel’ for the whole thing… I shared the idea with other filmmakers and producers and the musicians I began to encounter. My idea wasn’t at all original – making a music documentary isn’t – but I was inspired by Fatih Akin’s excellent “Crossing The Bridge” and saw this as a good model to adapt to the Cambodian context which was entirely new and original to me. I’d also just spent time in Istanbul, working at ‘the edges’ of the city, making films with marginalized communities and this experience seemed like it would unfold in the right kind of way in Cambodia, and lead to the kind of film I thought I’d make. Little did I know that there’d be a dramatic twist in my own script and soon I’d find myself in the film! up to my neck in a film about a band I was in. If someone had told me I’d end up in Cambodia, in a Cambodian band… one that was playing a similar repertoire to most Cambodian wedding bands… I would have laughed as such absurdity… probably choking while downing my soy milk cafe latte backwards through my nose. But this is exactly what happened.
It was around about 9 years ago that I checked myself in for a month’s stay a hotel called Golden Gate and waited for my buddy Justin Foster to arrive in PP. I needed a cohort and Justin, an actor and film fanatic as well as a dear friend, would be just the right partner in crime. Soon we were out and about shooting all sorts of little pastiches, gathering content while also gathering an interesting group of friends….these were film makers, musicians, artists, writers, expats with longer Cambodia experience than ours, then also an assortment of ‘people of the night’, the Phnom Penh noir… tuk tuk drivers, bar girls, bar keeps, waiters, wayward Westerners etc… the people who keep the city’s hustle alive from dusk til dawn. We kept the camera rolling and stories began to take shape. This pattern carried on right through until the final days of our holiday in Cambodia… it was around this time I met Channthy and everything I thought I’d planned – changed.
During this time I carried on seeking out musicians to meet and record – from the Royal University to the streets themselves – and people to video and interview. I’d come back home and show Juzzy some of these clips, like the day I went out to Olympic Stadium in the middle of a massive thunderstorm to meet KlapYaHanz founder and music producer Cream aka Sok Visal who was waiting there with a young Khmer rapper who I’d be introduced to as MC Lisha. I was impressed, recorded and interview with the pair but then asked Lisha – who wasn’t prepared for this – to perform a song… she did a track called Woman and I shot two takes then spliced this together.
Be Careful for Your Head sign at The Golden Gate
By this stage I’d moved in for my last week in Cambodia to stay at Australia filmmaker Ian White’s house – 7 years later CSP would become the soundtrack for Ian’s feature Before the Fall – and Channthy stayed together a few of these last nights… it was here she was really able to see, over my shoulder, my own little films take shape and to meet Ian who spoke a lot more Khmer and understand that we were people who make stories. It was at this time I really knew that I would make a promise to return to Channthy and that this promise must be honored regardless of how long it would take. Meanwhile, Justin aka Juzzy had hooked up with an Australian who was in Cambodia on an Asialink residency – I’d actually been Asialink’s first Cambodia resident the year before so Laura Jean McKay had been in touch by email, needless to say we all hit it off… Channthy, Juzzy, Laura and I… when we all finally spent a few days together at the end of this trip. We even consummated our gang of four friendship by booking in at a Khmer photo studio for one of those special group photos… it looked cheesy as expected but the image of Channthy, dressed in some stunning green Khmer outfit, became our first gig poster. Soon it was my last night with Thy in Phnom Penh, Juzzy and Laura had already gone separate way – Laura to Paris, Juzz on a slow boat down the Mekong towards Saigon, Thy and I had been out for drinks on the rooftop of Meta House and as she didn’t drink at the time, felt sick on the ride home back to Ian’s place near Toul Sleng and vomitted out the moving tuk tuk… she was really upset with herself for this but I really didn’t care. I had made my promise and I would be back.
Next Stop: The World
As soon as I traveled on I felt the injustice of how easily my life was… I’d return to Australia and pick-up a bit of freelance work but not before a nice little round-the-world trip back home. I traveled onto Paris, Venice, Istanbul and eventually back to Melbourne where I touched base with Justin…. we talked about all that had just been but he surprised me with a wild story about what happened… wild… when he finally did his last stop in Saigon…I’ll save this story for another occasion. What we did do, however, was to sit down and talk about the film ideas we’d worked through in Cambodia… we went back through the rushes of video and booked in a little screening at our local The Dogs Bar… it’s here we were pitching our Cambodia work… this clips included all the musicians, artists, characters I’d sought out and Juz and I had compiled together on video – they included MC Lisha, Master Kong Nay, Ouch Savy, MC Curly and Jan Mueller, as well as snapshots of city life and a few selfies. Our movie night at Dogs Bar Cinema would be called Holiday in Cambodia…of course.
Life was good back in Melbourne, I had work to do. As usual, music for music’s sake with my longtime collaborators such as Lindsay Gravina at Birdland Studios where I worked to mixdown another album by my Tasmanian collective The Green Mist, it was an LP I’d titled Dirt Weed but in the end got around to releasing… you see, there was a distraction and that was of course the fact that I couldn’t get Channthy off my mind… by day I was freelancing as a designer for several firms around the city, mulling over my Cambodian film project and just ticking off the day until I could afford to really move back to Phnom Penh. I’d written to Meta House and asked if they’d support me as an ‘artist in residence’ and the answer way “yes, sure…just get here and we’ll sort this out for you…” and that’s what I did.
It must have been November 2009 when I landed back at Pochentong Airport… I was a little aghast in seeing Channthy and her friend Srey Tom waiting for me at the airport… I really didn’t want this…all too fast…with Thy’s friend Srey Tom – who could speak some English – translating for Thy…”Bong where you wanna go, where do you stay?” “Can I stay with you?”… I didn’t want to stay with Thy right there and then and politely opted out… “Sorry, I must stay alone and start work at Meta House”… we went our separate ways… when I turned up at Meta House, however, it seemed they didn’t have a residency and I’d have to find somewhere else… damn… so I ended up at the Okay Guesthouse which is absolutely not okay and never will be… later I did stay for a night or too at Meta House and I did bring Thy to stay over with me there… then the manageress came and told me in the morning “we have a rule here…no bar girls” …somewhat hypocritical as the owner was married to someone who, like Thy, could have the same demeaning label applied… but there was lots to learn about life in Phnom Penh and I I’m still figuring the ‘hows and whys’ out… probably why I love the city. So Meta house, moved me out but offered a better solution, one of the team, French video designer Jean Matis called with another arrangement, staying at his recently vacated apartment on Street 21 – it was a lovely little apartment and it’s still one of my favourite residential locations in Phnom Penh – meric Jean! that moved changed my life. After a few days I was settled in, back to the idea of making my music documentary, Channthy was visiting regularly and one day announced “Bong…please can I stay here with you in your house…. it’s so nice here and it will be like a holiday for me…I have never had a holiday… we can be together…” What could I say? of course, it was time to say YES!!! and to be together, It was not the last time either that someone would say “oh…. you got together with a bar girl”. Fuck it… I’d fallen in love with Thy and I’d do what I want. Thy hung around the background while visitors came and went… I continued to entertain the idea that I was there on a ‘project’… to make a film….it seemed everyone in Phnom Penh was there on a ‘project’ and I needed to have one too.
Channthy and I stayed together without being able to really speak more than a dozen words between us but this was a wonderfully happy time, a new adventure that we both booked ourselves into. Interesting friends would come and go and soon we’d be known about the place, principally the rooftop bar – a fabulous place – at the old Meta House and a few other places. I’d made enough connections to have had someone suggest we could do a gig together… this was Mark Easty who was at the time running the now notorious Pontoon – then really located on the river as a floating pontoon bar – and the salubrious little hideaway The Alley Cat Cafe… Thy and I had a date… December 9 at the Alley Cat. I’ve previously written about what happened next and how the CSP seemed to start forming all by itself from that night on but one other thing was happening… we were starting to become our own movie… a story that was parallel to a script I’d also written based on what I new of Channthy – one of rural migration – from the province to the city – following the story of a singer…I’d moved away from simply wanting to make a music documentary and had written and pitched a film idea The River Flows Backwards to Nico – the film producer at Meta House. I’d marked this pitch CONFIDENTIAL and on re-reading it now, I can see it’s pretty much the story that began to happen in real life…only thing is, I stopped being a filmmaker, joined a band with Channthy and somehow became the film.
Around this time another keen filmmaker turned up – Marc Eberle who was also working with Meta House… it’s probably just as well too because it lead to the Cambodian Space Project movies and lots of filming that would not have otherwise have happened. Personally, I find the movie that eventually became Marc’s film cringeful… a real disappointment as it was a film project that was very much a collaborative effort between friends but that changed once commissioners and other parties got on board… I guess that’s to be expected but one thing the final cut missed out on was the joie de vivre of the CSP – an amazing collective of friends and great friendships… Marc’s film has been a success but knowing what is there and how the cut went to screen, it’s a disappointing outcome and both Thy and I felt it was a misrepresentation of what we wanted to do. Marc, a ‘reportage’ oriented documentary film maker – had an excellent film already out there The Most Secret Place On Earth and would eventually get the commission to make the CSP film via BBC Storyville. He’d become a confident of Channthy’s but not always in a good way. We all fell out after the CSP film came out but got together at Thy’s funeral, Marc was back at work…trying to find out what had happened to Thy in the moments leading up to her death. Like all of us so deeply involved, Channthy’s death was just such a shock… it’s hard to believe that this amazing woman who was so much loved by all who new her is gone.
Thy’s electric onscreen presence is really demonstrated in Have Visa No Have Rice
Marc was also one of the really committed ‘in-house art directors’ aboard the CSP and really saw all potential in Channthy’s natural talent.. she was still a demure personality around all this sudden onslaught of Barangs (foreigners) and at first was polite and reserved onstage but she beamed with happiness nonetheless…almost as if she couldn’t believe she was there. Marc worked with Thy and I to dream up some wonderfully colourful ideas for Thy and to his credit Marc, styled Thy in way that would really become the cartoonish caricature she so readily jumped into. There was an early film shoot where Marc had styled up Thy super pop! platinum wig, green screen, vespa hauled up two flights of stairs to photo studio, big bold sunglasses and even had a friend cut a 60’s vintage airline stewardess’s dress… a great look! but at first Thy resisted… “Cmabodia girl can’t do this….what’s Bong Mark doing?? this is schkoot (crazy!)” Again, Thy’s mood changed as soon as she saw the little bits of video Marc had quickly cut together and played back on a little cinema size screening. Wow! is that me?!
I could see that our group… a team of crazy Space Projectors… was now just operating in a mutually interested way… we all were having so much fun! the whole concept… the life around it… the gigs and parties… the idea that this should all go STRATOSPHERIC! was really the mission. And to top all this off, everyone loved Thy and were already doing everything possible to see that she achieved all the success she deserved, there was a lot of goodwill. I’d really given up the idea of making any film myself and just worked to support the making of the CSP film as much as possible. The other thing is that I really hadn’t expected to be back in a band again and had work to do to start trying to make it better and better. I’d keep an eye out for filmmakers too and when one day I got a call from an Aussie couple, wanting to make a film about Cambodian women, I suggested they meet and interview Channthy. Poppy and James came over to the house Thy and I had moved to, Ken White our Harmonica players place, and interviewed Thy… they weren’t sure if they’d use this material as the project was an NGO job and was pretty much scripted but again, I asked Thy and cameraman James if they’d do an impromptu video…”perhaps up 0n the rooftop? Thy’s got this beautiful song called Mondulkiri… it’d be great if we had a video” So off we went and shot this… I love the cinematography and the scene of Phnom Penh, the city’s skyline has changed completely, and Channthy’s performance, her ‘monkey dance’ is just sublime. It also helps the music is a beautiful remix from one of our first recordings and has been produced by Jan Mueller aka Prof Kinski.
More and more video work would come along and as always, Channthy took to these shoots like a duck to water, she was never camera shy and came off looking like a natural. Another filmmaker who was a really important part of making the CSP image was KM Lo and again, KM was part of the super fun scene at the old Meta House as it’s come to be known. KM would work with Channthy to shout and direct her to act and play up to hilarious, simple and fast ideas – kinda fried in wok filmmaking – quick and tasty… there’s this first clip in Hong Kong on a Hong Kong tram… i do wish he’d waited for the proper studio release of our cover of A Go Go as the recording is rubbish but the vids excellent… KM did a few clips for CSP in the same 1,2,3 action! kind of way… I also love the one-take shoot for I’m 16, filmed during a quick dash and getaway on Soi Cowboy, Bangkok.
later in the bands career, and in my life with Channthy, we’d work more and more with outside collaborators but also began to get back to assembling our own videos – rough’n’ready clips just to put video out there and circulate our music online. There’s been some very funny times getting this material together, always very quickly, always little time and no budget but plenty of pop! as they say. Thy loved the image of herself in Demon Lover, Rom Ding Dong, and even Never Fall Down… also our road movies… bits of CSP touring and always with lots of her own family and friends onboard the bus… there’s a lot of material shot by Samy Nine who toured with CSP as a videographer and covered some 30 days and 30 nights….all very hot days and nights…touring across the Kingdom… this work will surely be looked at and we’ll be carefully assembling a film to share sometime in the future
This year, we’d reach a point where there didn’t seem to be a need to get back to recording a new album in a hurry… we’d kind of said a lot already with our recorded output and would have to wait until the mood presented itself to get back to new stuff, we were already looking at remix ideas and ideas for more film clips. Last year as we were about to head off to tour USA for a show at the Kennedy Centre – for the launch of Ken Burns’ Vietnam TV documentary series – I got a message from Darwin based photographer Mark Roy… Mark asked if we’d be interested in creating a soundtrack for his film project – a tropical noir! piece based on a nightclub singer called Sumatra… Mark had insisted on shooting this film on Black& White Super 8.
So yeah, of course I agreed… I love Super 8… always loved the way it was used in the ‘home movie’ scene in Paris, Texas – but at the same time realised I really didn’t have many hours left in the day to actually do this while on the road across the USA – and no studio to do this either. I got the rushes for “Sumatra” while we were still in Washington but already to check out of our accom, pick-up a hire car and drive to New York. Completely exhausted after traveling from Cambodia and our premier at Kennedy Centre, Jason Shaw and I, hunched over a little lap-top and track a riff and a sound or too, noise and notes, and created the Sumatra soundtrack. Later, Mark emailed a copy of the film and I played this to Channthy while sitting in the back on the van on the way to NYC. Thy loved it… the film’s vintage look, the actors, the sounds…. “Oh Bong… I wanna video like this… next I want to do music video like this one…really great” and it was really great, and I wanted to do this too. So when Mark called me, just a few days before Thy’s 38th birthday and announced that he was coming over – from Darwin to PP – to shoot a movie on Super 8 for a festival called Straight-8… I jumped onboard… we met on a boat at Channthy’s Birthday Party and Mark told me more…. “Look… I’ve got my Cannon Super 8 camera… I’m here for a week… if we make a good film it might even get screened at Cannes Film Festival… it’s a competition called Straight-8…and the thing is …one roll of film…edit in camera and send it off to the lab in London …. we don’t even get to see what we’ve shot.
So this little movie became Flicker & Fade, based on a story I’d already conceived as Yesterday, Once More – a story of Cambodian singer based on the life and disappearance Poev Vannary. I was writing about this project just two nights ago when the news came in
FLICKER & FADE HAS BEEN SELECTED TO PREMIERE AT THE 2018 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
Wow! wow! wow! this is such big news but through this deeply saddening time it’s news that brings mixed emotions. Of course, I will be doing my best to get to Cannes and team up with Mark Roy for our screening… in what is described as “the most rock’n’roll corner of Cannes”.. at the Olympia Cinema on May 14th – parfait!
Mark and I aka The Kommandants will now go to Cannes and I will hope this little movie can launch something even bigger something very special and dear to me – a feature film based on the extraordinary life of a Cambodian singer. Not just a fiction based on Poev Vannary but a film to honor the life of our beloved Channthy. So yeah… it’s very short notice BUT i need to do this … got to get there, put together the information in a good way… and tell the story as well as possible… Flicker& Fade is most certainly ‘proof of concept’ and Thy’s extraordinary life deserves a movie! Together, we have lived a life that feels like a movie, still like a dream to me and still hard to believe in the finality of her death.
Channthy loved France and was looking forward to going back this year, she’s there in spirit and her voice will boom out with all it’s power and splendor form the big cinematic sound system at the Olympia, Cannes.
– wish us bonne chance!
Flicker & Fade
8.30pm – may 14th – Cinema Olympia, Cannes