by Fabien Lemercier
- Awarded Best Film at Annecy, Denis Do's directorial debut artfully lifts the veil on a family caught in the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge revolution
"We don’t have a choice. We have to stay and survive." It's at the heart of a dramatic historical event that the French filmmaker Denis Do decides to set his debut feature film, the excellent Funan [+see also:
film profile], winner of an award at Annecy International Animated Film Festival and recently screened in competition at Champs-Élysées Film Festival, very much ahead of its release in French cinemas by Bac Films on 13 March 2019. With great narrative strength and skilful visual restraint, this commendable film is a prime example of animation's ability to focus on adult subjects by expanding its potential audience to young adolescents, young adults and teachers, who will discover a new way of transferring knowledge that can sometimes be considered a little too abstract, distant and arid on paper by generations who have polarised opinions on the power of images.
It is 17 April 1975. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia is invaded by the Khmer Rouge troops of Angkar ("The Organisation"), who seize power. 1.5 million people end up on the streets, propelled towards "an uncertain future." Among them, members of Sovanh's family – a three-year-old boy – are trying to stick together, save food and hide the few precious belongings they have been able to bring with them while they are escorted by soldiers who are as difficult as possible ("Angkar knows what’s good for you. You must obey!"), while destroying cars – symbols of corrupting capitalism. Separated from their child by the crowd while crossing a river, Chou and her husband Khuon try to reassure themselves by saying that his grandmother is probably with him while they continue their painful journey with the rest of the family: Chou's mother, her brothers Meng and Tutch and her sister Lily. Deported to a village under the reign of the fierce and retrograde discipline of the Khmer Rouge ("it’s time to bring back the purity of the olden days") – which is fed on incessant propaganda, the tyranny of self-criticism, the hunt for traitors and deserters, and mass executions – the family enters a mad spiral of suffering: exhaustive field work, famine, terrible consciences, etc... Time passes, death does its work, deportations separate them from each other, but Chou and Khuon never give up on one day finding their son. And for that, they have to survive...
Following the family over the course of four years under the yoke of barbarism, the screenplay, written by the director along with Magali Pouzol, is obviously eminently tragic, in an almost documentary-style format that recreates the experience of Cambodians at the time. But the film’s many twists and turns – the recurring presence of Sovanh (who grows up in total indoctrination) and sober animation, which plays on the contrast of beautiful and peaceful landscapes with the extreme hardness of Chou and her family’s living conditions –allow Funan to avoid total darkness, despite the cruel events that punctuate it. On the contrary, the film succeeds in highlighting the fierce will of a mother and father determined never to forget their child and to overcome all obstacles – including division – in order to save their souls and force their bodies – which have been sucked into an infernal ideological vortex – to fight back. A lesson in humanity that doesn’t fail to silently fall into the temptation of giving in to the normalisation of the surrounding monstrosities. A choice in favour of life and clarity in the face of the powers of death – herein lies the value of a film that perfectly marries its setting with its form.
(Translated from French)
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