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Denis Do Captures the Emotional Horror of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in ‘Funan’

Award-winning director discusses his semi-biographical animated feature about a family’s desperate struggle to reunite during the communist party’s 1975-1979 Cambodian reign of terror.

As a member of the Feature Film Jury at the 2018 Annecy International Festival of Animated Film, AWN’s publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Dan Sarto, joined his fellow judges in handing out the Cristal Award to Funan, Denis Do’s directorial debut that chronicles the separation of a four-year-old Cambodian boy from his parents and their quest to find him during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge reign of terror.  It took a global effort to produce Do’s personal project; the 2D-animated film was a co-production involving artists in Cambodia, France, Luxembourg and Belgium as well as Oscar-nominee Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), who provided the voice of Chou, a mother desperate to reunite with her lost son.  During the director’s recent New York visit, AWN had a chance to speak to him about his tragic and heartbreaking film, touching on his family history and the inspiration that led to making his emotional, yet restrained depiction of the horrific violence associated with that period in Cambodian history.  The film, being distributed by GKIDS, begins its theatrical run in the U.S. this Friday. You can find screening dates and times here.

Dan Sarto:  I was quite moved by your film and feel the Cristal was richly deserved. Congratulations on all the accolades and on your deal with GKIDS.  It's good that more people will get to see your film.

Denis Do: Thank you very much.

DS: The horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge is a part of world history that I don't think is very well known, certainly, in the United States.  Your film is semi-biographical with regards to your mom's experience. What made you decide to tell this story, and why did you choose animation?

DD:  All the reasons are the consequences of my short lifetime of experience. First of all, I think it is because of the time I shared with my mom when she offered me all of her testimonies. I didn't know what Khmer Rouge meant as a kid growing up in France.  My father took me to Cambodia in 1995, as he wanted me to connect with my roots. But it didn't work because there was a culture shock. The misery, poverty, disease and victims of land mines were everywhere on the streets of Phnom Penh at the time.  I was 10 and denied everything between me and Cambodia. 

We went back in 1997, this time with my mom and little brother. Something happened during the first week of July 1997, because we suddenly had to escape to Vietnam. When I came back to France, I conducted research and found some answers for why we escaped. There was a coup d’état organized by the actual prime minister.  My mom saw tanks and soldiers on the street; it brought back many bad memories.

I was always interested to hear stories about my ancestors.  But every time, the path of my family stopped during the Khmer Rouge period.  I had a strong relation with these topics and during my childhood, I used to separate out everything related to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I don't know why. 

I decided at the age of 12 or 13 that one day I would bring all of those testimonies to reality. But I didn't know whether I would make comics or a novel.  During my graduation years at Les Gobelins, I suddenly decided that it would be an animated film. I didn't grow up with Disney films or animation for kids.  That helped me because I didn’t feel that animation was only meant to tell stories for children.  It’s an opportunity, like with every kind of filmmaking technique, to tell a story.  I chose animation because it was natural for me. Of course, everyone starts by asking me, ‘Why did you choose animation?’  This is not the kind of question you ask live-action film directors.  I didn't want to depict my mom through a real actress.

I will go straight to the point about the violence in the film because it’s important.  I didn't want to avoid the violence but also didn't want to show it directly. This kind of violence, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, can look and sound exotic, especially for us Westerners. I didn't want the film to be impressive through the violence. To glorify it. That’s why I chose to express violence without showing it directly.  I didn't want the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge to be an anchor point for the audience. I wanted the audience to be focused only on the family, its psychology and emotion.

DS: You very artfully and successfully represented the horror in a way that didn’t lessen any of the emotional impact. You showed it through the eyes of the people involved, where the real horror is.

DD: The most important thing, in order to invite the audience to understand this period of time, is to have them feel empathy for the main characters. Emotion is the main point of the film, instead of explaining the Khmer Rouge. Empathy can cause audiences to do their own research about the Khmer Rouge or any kind of regime in world history.  Instead of giving a lesson or teaching, helping the audience experience everything through the life and emotion of a character is much more impactful in some ways.

DS: In the West, awful things often happen but they tend to be presented in the media as discreet events. Something awful happened and you deal with the aftermath of it… then move on.

DD: I can also give you other examples.  When you pay a visit to the S-21 Museum, a former jail where a lot of prisoners were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge, you’ll see some fake blood on the ground. Sometimes I feel that by depicting the atrocities in that way, people want to impress you and to show you how it was a very terrifying time.  This is not what I wanted to depict. The Khmer Rouge regime is the context. The most important thing is what happens to this family… what they are experiencing and how everyone can turn into to someone else. Even the Khmer Rouge. Everyone is treated at the same level. People can stick together as a family, but at the end, in order to survive, many psychologies can change. That's why I like to say that the film depicts humans rather than any one ethnic group of people. 

That's the power of animation. You are creating another reality.  It allows me, for example, to rebuild everything through drawing. When you draw, you have a strong, direct relationship with what you are doing. At the beginning, when I was collecting testimonies, it was like documentary work. Some people misunderstood my project and thought that it might be an animated commentary. But I never wanted to make a documentary.  Documentaries are a way to see the past through your present eyes. What I wanted through this fiction, based on real events, was to dive inside the past. To make the past the present time. There’s also a great power in creating stories this way.  Animation is quite powerful for that. We should explore such ways much more.

DS: I agree. Animation is a powerful storytelling medium.  More and more, independent animated features are exposing people to stories that aren’t considered family fare.  Animation is used to tell stories in every genre. That's a good thing.  Along those lines, how did you decide upon the 2D animation style used in the film?

DD: I asked my former classmate and good friend, Michael Crouzat, to be my graphic artist because we have the same taste in terms of drawings and animation. We were quite inspired by Japanese animation.  It was important for me to link the graphic style to what we call reality because things happening inside the film are based on reality.  We needed to show humans, not cartoons.  There is also a contrast between the environment, and humans.  In the film, nature is completely split from the human world. Nature is not watching humans at all and humans are torturing themselves, suffering alone and completely disconnected from nature. Nature is living inside its own cycle. At the end of the film, I wanted nature and humans to connect again. That's why on the last shot, 50 percent of the screen shows the air, 50 percent shows the land and between both, you have the characters, meaning life.

When life and environment are connected again, for me, it’s spiritual.  At the beginning, Chou is inside a submissive situation. Her husband is the chief and when the Khmer Rouge take over, she doesn't understand what happened. When Chou lost her child, she reacts, she feels anger and falls inside hatred. At one point, Chou was angry with her husband when he saved the life of a Khmer Rouge girl; she expected her to die. With all that hatred, Chou abandoned herself to death because she didn't have hope anymore.  Soon after her husband came back and mentioned that he had information about finding their son, Chou found hope again. In terms of psychology, Chou elevated herself at that moment. Chou becomes quite better than in the beginning in terms of personality. Chou exists at that moment and she reaches her spiritual ending at the end of the film.

DS: What were some of the biggest issues you struggled with to get this film completed?

DD: The biggest challenge was funding because it impacts everything, especially during the production period.  We started working with a small budget.  I wanted to unite every artist inside one studio, but we worked in six studios at the end through four countries. The culture of art is not the same in every country, so it was very hard to calibrate everything.  We didn't have production management, so it was hard to keep the design, graphic styles, and to unite artists as they had different levels and skills.  French artists are very good. When you work with other countries, like Luxembourg or Belgium, the levels are not the same and you have to calibrate everything to make your film coherent.  I didn't want a very impressive film.  I want it to be very sober. This choice allowed me to find solutions.

DS: I know that sometimes, working under those types of constraints is when you can become extremely creative.

DD: This is a great sentence. I don't remember who said it. But, ‘No creation without constraint.’

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.