STOP10: 'Hidden Photos' by Davide Grotta

Screened at the recent 8th Cambodia International Film Festival, the documentary Hidden Photos by Davide Grotta starts with an arresting proposition - that there are only two main reasons why people would want to come to Cambodia as tourists, to visit the Angkor Wat, or to be a genocide tourist. Enter Nhem En. He was a photographer enrolled in the Khmer Rouge regime, who took more than 14.000 mugshots of the Tuol Sleng prison victims. Today, he is unabashedly cashing in on the aforesaid genocide tourism.

On the other hand, there is Kim Hak, a young and talented Cambodian photographer who is looking to capture images of a new Cambodia. His career starts from some family pictures his mother hid underground before the war and retrieved just after the defeat of the Khmer rouge. Hak's images will take us to a new Cambodia, far from stereotypes.

In the end, which Cambodia is more relevant today? Hidden Photos won the Best Documentary Award in the The Maysles’ Brothers Competition in the 2017 Belfast Film Festival. We interviewed Davide to find out how he hatched the idea for the documentary and the reception towards the film so far.

What was the idea behind the film, “Hidden Photos”?

I did not choose to shoot in Cambodia in order to refresh our memory of the Khmer Rouge regime and its atrocities. I stumbled into it without originality. I chose this country because I thought it was the best laboratory to get to know the human being and his relation with time, with past and his history. I think that the practice of photography links man to time in a very privileged way – he represents it. Each photograph belongs to the past.

How different is it from other films related to the Khmer Rouge?

The main difference is that we don't talk about Khmer Rouge. Instead, we use that era as background of our film. It's not our main topic. Our point is: what use do we make of images of our history? During the editing I found out that only a few brave people pose questions while looking at a picture and want to search for answers. Others make it become a business for the present. 

Moreover, the majority of people relate to it passively, for it is easier to listen to the story told by an audio-guide. I am afraid of museums, of their labels, of their anecdotes, of the spectator's laziness and of the simplifications that often take place in these places. I am afraid of places where history is cleaned and where individual experience is silenced. I shiver in front of the synthesis of an unexplained photograph. I would never take my son into a museum. I would never like to see him in a postcard.

How do current day and younger Cambodians relate to these relics from the scary past of the Khmer Rouge?

My feeling is that Cambodia is a country that is changing a lot, especially in town. It's been almost 40 years from the "fall of Phnom Penh". It's like if you tried to talk about World War II to my parents during 1980s. My parents at that time thought to create a family (I was born in 1983) and economic position (If I can make movies today, it's only because of them). For my grandparents, the bitter memory of the war still remains.

What’s the most surprising thing about the film for a general audience?

I hope each scene will be a surprise. We tried to build our characters letting you know more about them scene by scene. Personally I more attached to the audio-guide, because it's like a voice-over but not using my real voice.

What kind of reactions has the film gotten from the difference audiences in its screening journey?

We had very good responses from the public. It's our first movie, so I was very happy that people didn't leave the cinema after 15 minutes. That thought scares me a lot.
Then in Italy sometimes the public don't understand how it is possible that there is no conflict during the meeting between Hak and Nhem En. Younger Italians could possibly have different reactions, and it's not easy to explain the different relations that we or the Cambodians have with old people.

We had Cambodian audience members in Paris, France. They were very surprised to have watched a movie related to their past where there are no judgments, and where sometimes they can have fun.

Interview by Kathy Poh

Check out the other 9 films in our STOP10 list of Cambodian films from CIFF 2018.

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