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Denis Do • Director of Funan

"The film is about the power that comes with the desire to live"


- French filmmaker Denis Do talks about his first feature, animation film Funan, which triumphed at Annecy and is released in French theatres today

Denis Do • Director of Funan

We spoke to the French filmmaker Denis Do, whose first feature film Funan [+see also:
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interview: Denis Do
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won an award at Annecy International Animation Film Festival and is being distributed in French theatres by Bac Films today.

Cineuropa: Where did the idea for the film come from?
Denis Do
: From my childhood. My mother shared a lot with me about the Khmer Rouge era. I told myself that one day I would turn my heritage into something tangible. While at Gobelins Animation School, I told a peer about one particular scene, who told me it was very exciting and I should make it into a film. It was March 2009, in June I graduated and sat in front of my mother with a notepad. I told her that we had to go back and talk about everything. Several trips followed to Cambodia in order compare testimonials, stories and track things chronologically. In 2011, all the primary ingredients for the film were ready. Magali Pouzol, the co-writer, soon joined the adventure and we had everything we needed to tell the story. Did I want to tackle the politics of the Khmer Rouge regime in particular? No, because I think understanding its political dimensions is a historian's job. I was primarily interested in the journey of my loved ones, so we quickly made the decision to approach the film from an empathetic viewpoint. But I had no desire to relay the three to four years of my mother's personal experience, because life doesn’t always necessarily lend itself to cinematography and there was a need for a few narrative twists and turns. We were inspired by a few primary ingredients, but then we allowed ourselves to make quite a few changes. 

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How did you approach the issue of representing members of the Khmer Rouge?
I had an especially strong desire not to make a film that was morally black and white. I also developed characters in order to show what the American psychologist Stanley Milgram refers to as the habits of low-serving officers: blind obedience to orders given from above, in an oppressive climate, even brainwashing. But that’s not to say that human goodness doesn’t persist in some, often through familial bonds, and I wanted to explore this idea through two characters in the film. It was a bit of a challenge because I was initially hesitant to be an advocate for people belonging to the Khmer Rouge, but I ended up embracing the idea. These days, former executioners rub elbows in villages with former victims whose families and relatives mathematically include people from the former Khmer Rouge. Should we condemn people right off the bat? I don’t know, and it was not necessarily the film’s intention to go down that route. Facing the facts seemed more important to me. 

The film focuses on survival and human relationships.
I did not want to build the film around a hero, especially because that didn’t allow everyone to be on the same scale with regard to such an oppressive system. That's why when, on rare occasions, someone tries something, they are completely crushed in their attempt. All heroic endeavours are cut at the root. Everything is also quite confined: constructive exchanges are more or less always carried out in secret. You get the sense that it’s very difficult to expose ideas to the light of day. When the characters talk to each other, they always do so in a voice that’s very close to a whisper. It’s all about creating a whole atmosphere that weighs down on the characters throughout the film: the Khmer Rouge are a bit of an invisible enemy. 

Nature’s majestic and omnipresent role in the film offers a very strong counterpoint to the story.
I wanted nature to live on by itself, not to be interested in human activity, but to continue its own life cycle. And when nature and human beings meet, we end up with something really quite spiritual. I wanted the purpose of the film to reflect this exchange. The film is about the power that comes with the desire to live, even if its main pitch is survival and a woman’s struggle to find her child. But deep down, it actually goes beyond that and I did not set out to use this motive to play on the suspense of reunion. I wanted to inject another global message into the final part of the film, at a point when everything comes together and crosses paths: nature, humankind, the scope of all these elements coming into contact with the earth, the sky and life among it all, human breath and air mingling together, and the message that "we must survive."

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(Translated from French)

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