‘Funan’ Director Denis Do on Choosing Empathy Over Violence for His Deeply Personal Tale

     June 3, 2019

funan-director-denis-do-interviewFunan is one of the most important animated films I’ve ever seen. From writer/director Denis Do, making his feature film debut, comes a true-to-life story about the arrival of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 and how it upended the lives of a Cambodian family, just one among many. Suffering exile, separation from their family members, and their grueling new reality in the work camps, a young woman named Chou will risk everything to reunite her family, no matter the cost. You can get an idea of what Funan is about by watching the trailer here. The tale itself would be powerful enough simply as a history lesson about the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge but it becomes even more meaningful thanks to Do’s personal connection to the story.

I had a chance to talk with Do ahead of the release of Funan, which begins its rollout in New York this Friday, June 7th, thanks to GKIDS; click here to find a local theater and showtime near you. In this interview, he talked about a lifetime’s worth of research into his mother’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime and that of her friends’ and family members; Do also encourages viewers to follow up with their own research if they’re inspired by this film since there is quite a lot of ground to cover. Do also revealed how much of this film is based on actual accounts and which scenes were created through artistic license. Perhaps Do’s most powerful message comes via his decision to choose to evoke empathy for Funan‘s protagonists rather than to glorify in the violence that both soldiers and civilians participated in during this era. And as a refreshing end to this very serious conversation, Do reveals his next (and much more light-hearted) project.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewIn the context of this story, what does “Funan” mean and why was it the perfect title for this movie?

Denis Do: Well, I think the title is perfect because it is short and for Western audiences it reminds [them of] some things in Asia. I assume the fact that the film doesn’t describe or give a definition of the meaning of Funan, but as a film director, I really believe that audiences can make research by themself … because if people are interested by the contents they are watching, they start to make research. This is what I do, this is what my friends are so used to do.

By the way, Funan is the name of a kind of entity as a state, an empire, or city-states before, long time ago, and historians do not all agree with what kind of state it was. But everyone  agrees that the Funan [means] the Khmer civilizations. And to me it was really meaningful in some way to put together, to associate, the birth of civilization and it’s potential to collapse during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to tell this particular story?

Denis Do: This is because I’m linked to this content. Because the story is based directly on my mother’s personal experience and her life during the Khmer Rouge regime, when she was separated from my big brother for four years. I grew up with her testimonies, it was like a gathering point for us. Every time we talk about, we could talk about many, many things, and every time we reached the Khmer Rouge topics. I grew up with that. It occupies my mind and it’s also a way for me to find some answers inside this mysterious period I was always so interested about, the Khmer Rouge topics.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewAs I grew up in France, I always felt the need to know much more about my family, my ancestors, and every time I ask for information, we used to meet with the big wall of the Khmer Rouge period, which gives more questions than answers. I used to split the Khmer Rouge topics from the Cambodian history. The reason is that after [my] first trip in Cambodia in 1995 I was so shocked by the situation there that I deny all connection with Cambodia. So, It took time, but after being back in Cambodia again in 1987, it was during a family trip, we experienced in some way a coup de’tat, and I was aware of all of that when we came back to France, and that’s why I started to research about Cambodian history.

I was so interested in many kind of political aspect of the Cambodia of today. And then the Khmer Rouge topics link together with Cambodia again and everything appears to be so impressive. So I start to be aware about the heritage I carry on my shoulders and I realize that one day I would need to make something, to make it become reality. Writing a novel, drawing a comic book and one day I saw, during my last year of graduation years at Gobelins in France, after a discussion with a friend, it just it appears in mind that it would make sense to make an animation film.

How much was Funan informed by your research versus how much was informed by you and your families personal experiences?

Denis Do: I think this not maybe a good point to confront reality and fiction because I used to mention it, that the film is fiction based on the true story. And it is quite hard to separate sometimes from animatics, the real evidence from the fictional aspect, but I will try to make the exercise.

There are many, many aspects of the film which are fictional, but they are all based, every situation, are based on true story, even stories who are not from my mother’s own experience. And that is why I was interested about fiction much more than documentaries because in fiction you can put some situations inspired by your own creation, or also real events, who can inspire you. Other documentaries are much more depicting, analyzing some things with the eyes of the present time. I wanted to dive inside the Khmer Rouge regime and not to make a kind of list of what kind of atrocities the Khmer Rouge have committed. What I wanted is to make the audience feel empathy because I believe empathy is the best door to introduce such story and such context. We are not trying to give a historical lesson about this context, and as I said, if people feel empathy they get interested about the content, the context and maybe they will make the researches themselves.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewI can give you an example of the things we have changed for the film. There is one character, a woman, she gave her son to shoot the main character and so this character is based on two characters. We merged both characters into this woman because it was, in terms of storytelling, in terms of emotional aspect and power of this character, it was quite more interesting to make two of them becoming one. And another example is almost at the end of the film, the character of Chou, she open her jacket to show her body, her scars. In this scene, the victims of the Khmer Rouge are trying to kill a younger Khmer Rouge girl, but seeing the woman without her jacket they all stopped. And why I am talking about these scenes is because this is a complete creation. For example, my mother never passed through that, but I was inspired for such things for such situations by real evidence in Cambodia.

It was 2012 I think, if my memory is still good, I read in an article there were women who lost their lands because of the government, because of … I don’t really remember the reasons. But they complain about it and they form a kind of mob on the street and the policemen beat them, and as they have nothing to defend, to protect themselves they take off their clothes and stay naked on the streets. And to be naked in Cambodia, nudity is quite taboo, so the policemen stop to beat them. And the women they didn’t get back their lands and when they did this action they just said some things like; “You took everything from us already, just take the rest.”

And to me it was so powerful, and I wanted to pay tribute to such a situation in some way through the film. And I know Funan it’s not mention everywhere so no one will make the links and know what kind of situation or tribute it is, but in terms of creation, in terms of my own artistic ethics maybe, its quite meaningful.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewThis is a difficult story, but one that absolutely needs to be told, especially among Western audiences and younger viewers who may not have the historical context for it. So what makes now the right moment to tell this story?

Denis Do: I don’t know what’s the meaning of the real moment, because to be honest with you I didn’t choose 2019 to release the film. If I was able to finish the film earlier I think I would do it, and I was quite naive at the beginning, and I am still naive, and it is important to be naive at least. During the beginning, I was expecting to film to be finished for 2015 and to release the film in April 2015 because it would make a big sense, it was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, but according to the funding, according to the production process, its not possible, so the “good moment” was leaded the production process, not by what I expect.

But, I think you are talking about more and more in European production we are creating what people call the “political animation film.” I think in some way animation, and maybe 2D animation, is quite more major than before. Maybe in terms of story, in terms of content, we have already told more or less what we used to tell. So that’s why maybe in terms of maturity we can start to deal with what animation never used to deal with. So I really believe it links to the maturity of others authors, also artists, in Europe and the opportunities also because such things can be funded in Europe. Its really hard and exhaustive to work on it, buts it’s possible.  I knew that there were Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, I never ask myself if such a thing could become reality because I don’t consider myself as very influenced by the idea that animation is for children. I didn’t grow up with Disney animation film, so this is not a kind of cliché I had in my mind. I think we can just tell what we want through animation, we should not ask ourselves too much we should just create, that’s all.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewThe editing through the film is fantastic, but what went into the decision to pull the camera away at moments of violence and death except in some rare cases?

Denis Do: Thank you very much for what you are saying about the editing because I finished the editing myself the last five [or] six months and I removed scenes. I changed the length of many, many scenes, and I did all of that without knowing if I was going for the good way or not because at that moment of the production I had no distance anymore with anything in the film. So very relieved and thank you because it’s really touching.

And about the violence … the way I wanted to depict the violence of the film was completely depending on my own experience about the Khmer Rouge topics. There are many facts. I remember when I was young, when I talk with my mom, I was really greedy about blood, violence, and such details. And faced with the fact that I wanted to make the film, I didn’t want the film to be too much … I wanted something intimate, and also to respect the victims.

And another thing is that every time I talk with new generations of Cambodians, like me, who their parents were also victims, quickly we start to talk about the atrocities and all the violence and there is a kind of, this is not competition, but we try to impress each other with what we know every time and it was not really efficient to the film for me to depict such things. For example, I still ask myself what could bring scenes like three guys under the ground with only their heads out of the ground and on their head there is a kind of pot, like to cook rice you know, and between them a fire. And they were punished and killed like that. And to me, it won’t bring anything to the film except violence and atrocities, some things [that are] very impressive we aren’t use to seeing in our countries, peaceful countries I mean, and it can look very exotic and I didn’t want the film to rely on such things.

If I started to describe and to depict the violence I would start to list them. This is not the point, I didn’t want to make such things. I didn’t want to explain also too much things about the Khmer Rouge, their ideology, what they expected to do for Cambodia. The film is not giving a history lesson. To me, using the violence to describe the Khmer Rouge was not the best way to describe them.

When I went to Cambodia in 2010 with many friends, we went to the S21 museum. I was quite protective about S21, the memory around the Khmer Rouge, and I was very angry when one of my friends noticed and mentioned that there was some fake blood on the ground. So we trying to find an argument to explain to him that it was correct to do that, but I didn’t believe myself, and I think it is using violence, it is using the past to impress. This is not the best way, this is just about two reactive feelings and not enough intellectual. So, the film, I wanted to use emotion and empathy to tell the story. If you feel emotion and empathy for the main characters, you follow them and you experience what they are experiencing for themselves. This is the best way to start understanding the Khmer Rouge context. And since you are interested about the characters’ path, maybe you start also to make research about the Khmer Rouge.

funan-director-denis-do-interviewSo one particularly striking scene that could potentially benefit from some extra context is the scene in which Sovanh is helping to deliver piglets in a temple, one decorated with murals, while the silhouette of a man being hung is shown in the foreground. There is a lot going on here, so can you walk us through some of the layers of that scene?

Denis Do: To be honest with you, I don’t know if such temple exists or not in Cambodia, but first of all, just through the facts, it describes how the Khmer Rouge destroys everything about religion and beliefs. In Cambodia, temples tend to be some buildings for pigs and other animals. At that moment of the film when the baby pig is born, it is a peaceful moment. There is life, a new life’s come in, and the painting on the wall is just depicting the Buddhist hell.

In the amount of picture in this temple is the kind of recall in the S21 for example. The S21 was a jail where people were tortured and killed and fifty thousand people died there. And today it becomes a museum, with fake blood sometimes, and there are a lot of pictures of victims. And the amount of pictures is a kind of recall of that. This is a big contrast between death and life, which is coming, and inside this peaceful area at the end and as all the scenes with Sovanh, at the end, reality is coming back. The reality here is that this temple is a torture camp, and as a guy is hanging to be tortured. These scenes really appear at the middle of the film, it is kind of very empty, but filled with ,you know, there is picture everywhere, but still quite empty.


Image via FIAF Animation First Festival

Was the realization of this film being out in the world and being received so well cathartic for you in any way? And what effects do you hope Funan has on audiences who are lucky enough to see it?

Denis Do: At the beginning, during the development, when people ask me if the film is cathartic or not, I use to say no. But today I know myself much more, and I only said no because I didn’t want to say yes. And today I am very aware how much the film brings to me, especially after the research, during the production. In some way I grew up a lot. Because, for example at the end of the film I decided to write to my mom, my brother, to all the exile, because people who leave their country, they choose to leave it. In ways they arrive in the new land, in new countries. They don’t ask themselves where they are from because they know, they already integrated. But when the new generation grew up, as me, we needed to ask ourselves these questions, and I think Funan is one of the results of all of my research of all the years spent to know much more about my roots. And in that way it was cathartic because these are some things I continue to do today.

A lot of mysteries surround my family’s story and I will continue to find the answers, not only for me, but also for the next generation. It’s quite important especially, because I know, I think this kind of trauma has passed from my grandparents to my mom and to me. My Grandparents they left China because during the Japanese invasion they sail in Cambodia, and my mom left Cambodia because of the Khmer Regime. In some way, I think, it marks you, I don’t know why, but deeply inside me I believe one day we might need to leave from France, because nothing is eternal.

I think this is something which makes me very anxious, so I won’t talk too much about it. The film was also really helpful because I also had a kind of identity crisis when I was a teenager, and I didn’t really know. I knew that I had Cambodian roots, Chinese roots and that in terms of nationality I was French, but during my teenage time I decided that I was Chinese and I affirmed myself as a Chinese by denying French. And Cambodia, that didn’t exist for me because I already denied everything from Cambodia. But during the production of the film, as I fall in love with Cambodia again through the story of my mom, and as I went already to China a few years before I understood how much I was French, I assumed and I accepted the three, my cultural identity, as equal. We can be what we want, we are not necessary in the need to choose only one, we can be what we want.

What’s up next for you?

Denis Do: Well, the next, I can’t say too much because my producer he doesn’t allow me to say too much but it will be Rock and Roll. It will be in Cambodia today. It will be shiny and funny. And it will show how memories could inspire young people and how memories don’t need to be dark, but can be very bright and inspiring.

Funan opens in New York this Friday, June 7th and will be playing at a location near you throughout the summer.




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