"So there's a film festival that's premiering tonight. I have a few extra tickets...would you like to go?"
A casual invitation. Modest expectations. An extraordinary experience. This seems to be a running theme during my time here. I can get used to this.
A Celebration of National Culture
The Memory International Heritage Film Festival is the first of its kind in Asia. Three threaters around Phnom Penh served as venues for a two week film extravaganza celebrating Cambodia's rich film heritage. The 1960s were widely hailed as the "Golden Age" of Khmer Cinema, with the late former King Norodom Sihanouk-perhaps one of the few heads of state who was also an avid filmaker-personally directing many of these films. The films which were screened represented the hallowed but proud suvivors of the Khmer Rogue's brutal targeting of the nation's artistic community.
My supervisior (and friend!) "Pinkie" managed to get a few extra tickets from one of her friends who directed one of the documentaries which would be featured later in the festival. With no particular plans that Sunday night, my Prey Lang partner-in-crime Mara and I figured: Why Not?
Putting the Casual in Business Casual
With ten minutes left before I had to leave for what I assumed would be a casual event amongst young movie aficianados, I was all set to go in my Barcelona jersey, striped shorts, and flip flops. At the last minute, I remembered that I forgot to ask Pinkie about the dress code...better to err on the side of caution and go business causal. After first meeting Mara at the Dairy Queen by the Riverside (yes Cambodia has Dairy Queen! Their blizzards are every bit as refreshing-and a lot cheaper!), we began to walk to the premier to meet Pinkie and her brother Kakrona (who went to the BarCamp Battambang Convention with the ODC team and took many of the pictures which I used in my blogpost!).
The first sign that things were not what I had imagined them to be was the venue-the historic Chaktamuk Theatre all lit up at night was a sight to behold. The second sign? The cars swarming the parking lot. Diplomatic license plate after diplomatic plate. US, France, the UK...it seemed the entire diplomatic community in Phnom Penh had showed up for the show. Everywhere we looked we saw men in sharp suits and women in stunning dresses excitedly hurrying up the elegant staircase to find their seats. Even with the business shirt and pants, I looked way out of my league. If you spotted me in that crowed, you'd wonder how that random kid managed to find his way into such a VIP-only extravanza.
The VIP of VIPs
The final sign that this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience was the moderator's stunning announcement minutes after everyone had managed to find their seats. "Please stand up respectfully, for His Majesty is about to take his seat."
You know how you always promise yourself that if you met someone famous, you'd play it cool? How while everyone else was going crazy, you'd just cooly smile and nod?
Yeah that did not happen. To be fair I didn't completely freak out, but to say that I was excited would be an understatement.
Also in my defense, it must be said that he certainly wasn't a typical celebrity-a movie star or an athlete. This was His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, the acting Head of State of an entire nation-and a proud nation with an ancient monarchial line at that. I had seen official portraits of him throughout Phnom Penh in all of their splendor, but the thing that instantly struck me most was how humble and ordinary he seemed with his crew haircut and slender frame. His graciousness-he bowed to all sections of the audience before taking his seat (only a few rows from where we were sitting!) and gave a standing ovation to the organizers after their introductory remarks-was heart-warming beyond measure. The respect and adoration that the people of this nation have for their King was clear for all to see.
After such a stunning start to this premier, the movie itself had a lot to live up to. And it didn't disappoint. La Joie de Vivre was one of the late King Sihanouk's early works and, as the Phnom Penh Post colorfully describes it, features a "glimpse into the decadent lives of Cambodia's blue-blooded in the 1960s: a powder-blue Cadillac, gambling soirees, shimmying go-go dancers, Kep mansions, and polygamy." It its unapologetic hedonism and raunchiness, King Sihanouk truly broke a lot of of barriers not only for 1960s Cambodia, but 1960s anywhere-and in many ways, even today! The movie was incredibly funny as well, and also shattered the language barrier by thoroughly entertaining an audience from around the world.
Meeting a Cultural Heroine
After the movie, the moderators invited the audience to the reception room. Waiters kept bringing a delicious array of snacks and drinks to the guests as they mingled with one another as well as with the organizers and volunteers who made the two-week film festival possible. The reception hall was richly decorated with a variety of old film posters-many of which were recently discovered. We were even able to meet the famous actress Dy Saveth and have our picture taken with her next to a poster of one of her iconic movies Pos Kang Kong. Her graciousness towards both her Cambodian fans and foreign was extremely touching. We left the premier with high expectations for the rest of the two week film festival. Spoiler alert: We were not disappointed.
Read the exciting conclusion of the festival in Part 2!