Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Art As Common Property

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Here, May Adadol Ingawanij writes on Kavich Neang’s Last Night I Saw You Smiling, a new wave Cambodian film situating art as common property.

We enter the world of Last Night I Saw You Smiling with the sound of demolition work. The first shot that appears is of a corridor being gutted. The faded green paint and streaks on the wall tell of age and neglect. The wooden chicken cage still there in the corridor of a building breathing its very last breaths leaves a sense of something untimely. Shots of the corridor bookend Kavich Neang’s documentary. 

The Cambodian filmmaker was born in Phnom Penh in 1987, a child of the post-conflict era. The hospital where his mother gave birth to him is near the building that he had grown up in, right in the heart of the city. Completed in the early 1960s, the White Building was a public housing project and exemplar of Khmer architectural modernism. Survivors of the war and the genocide rebuilt their lives in it, including Kavich’s parents who were among the group of artists who had moved into the building at the end of the Cold War. Yet the White Building would not survive the present-day violence of gentrification, pushed by the partnership between Cambodia’s authoritarian deep state and East Asian capital. 

Kavich’s subtle documentary is seemingly microscopic in its framing. It observes a few of the building’s long-time inhabitants, men and women in their sixties, dusting down and boxing up their modest belongings in the last few days they have left in their flats while demolition work close in on them. They worry that the promised compensation money, which in any case is hardly enough, will not materialise. They make matter-of-fact comparisons with their displacement during the period of Khmer Rouge terror, while playing down the fear and anxiety that must come with being made homeless at this late stage in life. 

Last Night I Saw You Smiling does not show us the White Building inhabitants’ organisation in response to the brutal forces of gentrification. The few scenes referencing people’s encounters with the authorities portray their half-hearted hope to be properly recompensed with some kind of largesse. In this respect it differs in vision from documentary film projects on public housing and people at the margins, such as Frederick Wiseman’s Public Housing or Andrea Luca Zimmerman’s Estate, A Reverie, which respectively observes mundane moments whereby the buildings’ inhabitants negotiate with agents of authority, or integrates the event and imaginative capacity of filmmaking into the duration of activism and resistance. Instead, Kavich’s film takes place in a moment in which the prospect of direct political action is remote. Yet its indexing of the ghostliness of the building’s corridor, and its portrayal of the depth of relations between powerless beings animating a dilapidated space, honours the capacity for life and endurance not easily exhausted.   

Even as the building is about to come down, the corridors and open staircases linking them remain spaces of common usage and sympathy. The shots of the almost empty corridors in the process of being made to disappear points to that space in its potentiality. This was here. This corridor here was where bodies mingled, songs from different eras and sounds from different worlds mixed, and where doors that might have shut out each unit of dwelling persisted in remaining ajar until the day they came down. Several scenes in the film show people methodically dissembling door frames and window parts to take with them into the next unknown destination. As he leaves, Kavich’s reticent father pauses at the threshold between a gutted doorway and the corridor, his hand fleetingly caressing the exposed bricks for the last time while the chanting of Buddhist monks becomes faintly audible. In the corridor his neighbour, a handsome woman who had previously been an actress, makes a gesture of thanks to the invisible presence of this place before she leaves. 

Kavich is part of a dynamic small group of filmmakers and artists rejuvenating independent artistic practice in Phnom Penh. Among the many remarkable achievements against the odds of this art scene, its memory work of relating across the generations and its endeavour to situate art as common property outside artworld spaces is strikingly courageous. Last Night I Saw You Smiling shares this sense of purpose. It is a new wave film that looks beyond the lives of the young, asserting the depth of relational bonds – neighbourly kinship, ancestrally forceful sense of place – as, at least for now, spiritual force. 

May Adadol Ingawanij is a writer, curator and teacher. Her recent curatorial projects include On Attachments and Unknowns (with Erin Gleeson, Phnom Penh, 2017), Animistic Apparatus (Udon Thani, Bangkok, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 2019 – ). She is Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Westminster and Co-director of the Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media. 

Kavich Neang’s Last Night I Saw You Smiling screens on Tues 10th September at Regent Street Cinema