A Lost Legacy?

Sitting in his Phnom Penh home surrounded by his writings, Vann Molyvann spoke slowly but poignantly, said film director Christopher Rompre, who began interviewing Cambodia’s most celebrated architect last year.

“He’s sort of a tough nut to crack,” producer Haig Balian added.

The Interior of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh, seen last year, overlaid with blueprint animation (Christopher Rompre)
The Interior of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Phnom Penh, seen last year, overlaid with blueprint animation (Christopher Rompre)

Mr. Rompre and Mr. Balian are shooting “The Man Who Built Cambodia,” the first documentary on the aging modernist luminary, slated for completion in May.

Born in Kampot province in 1926, Mr. Molyvann trained at the Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts in France before pioneering Cambodia’s architectural renaissance between independence from France in 1953 and the civil war in the 1970s.

“He’s the most important figure in contemporary architecture in Cambodia,” said art historian Darryl Collins, co-author of “Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970,” who appears in the film.

“He didn’t just design buildings, but he revolutionized the way one thinks about the structure of cities.”

Appointed state architect under the late King Norodom Sihanouk, Mr. Molyvann was a leading fig
ure in the rise of New Khmer architecture, a distinct aesthetic that merged modernism with Angkor
ian and rural traditions.

He designed many of Phnom Penh’s most iconic buildings, in
cluding the National Theater, Chaktomuk Conference Hall and the National Sports Complex.

But despite his renown, the 88-year-old visionary remains something of a mystery.

“He’s quite a private man,” Mr. Rompre said. “A lot of people are so intimately acquainted with his buildings and have spent so much time with them, but know next to nothing about who he is.

“We wanted to tell his story. We wanted to find out where he’d come from, what drove him, how he came up with his ideas.”

The two Canadian filmmakers, who in 2012 founded the Phnom Penh-based production company LittleBig Films, embarked on what was their first historical documentary in late 2013. They received a $15,000 grant from the Asia Foundation and have launched an online campaign to crowdsource the rest of the funds.

The film features interviews with Mr. Molyvann’s daughter Delphine, as well as Mr. Collins and architect Bill Greaves, who founded the Vann Molyvann Project that archives Mr. Molyvann’s work. The conversations are interwoven with stunning shots of his structures and aerials of the city—filmed with drones before the municipality banned their use in Phnom Penh earlier this month.

But the 25-minute documentary tackles more than the man himself.

Vann Molyvann speaks during an interview at his home in Phnom Penh last April. (Christopher Rompre)
Vann Molyvann speaks during an interview at his home in Phnom Penh last April. (Christopher Rompre)

“His story is almost the story of the city and of the country as well: all of this hope and all of this promise that was happening after independence in the 1950s and the 1960s, which was brutally cut short in the ’70s,” Mr. Balian said, referring to the civil war and the Khmer Rouge era.

“Vann Molyvann’s architecture represents so completely that time in Cambodia, where there was all this experimentation with all these new, modern ideas,” Mr. Rompre added.

To rediscover that lost promise, the filmmakers dove into the archives, searching for materials that could visually contextualize Mr. Molyvann’s work in history. But they soon realized the Herculean scale of the task.

“Archival research is just painstaking—emphasis on pain,” Mr. Rompre said.

“We feel like we are in totally uncharted territory. It’s really exciting, a little daunting, but a lot of fun,” Mr. Balian said.

And finding useable archival material isn’t easy—or cheap.

“It’s hard because it’s expensive and it’s hard to find,” Mr. Rompre said. “Besides the widely seen footage of King Sihanouk, it’s hard to uncover new stuff.”

The filmmakers are facing a slew of challenges, starting with the fact that film cameras in the 1960s were still quite expensive and, although there was a thriving fiction film industry in the country, documentary footage from the time is much rarer, according to Chea Sopheap, deputy director of the Bophana Center.

“Of course, not many people could afford to have a camera for shooting daily life,” Mr. Sopheap said.

Of the small amount of footage produced, even less survived the Khmer Rouge regime, when artists were purged and artifacts perished.

“The Khmer Rouge destroyed a lot of things,” Mr. Sopheap said. “Filmmakers lost their films.

“Very few could flee the country,” he added. “Others also escaped the country but could not bring their films with them.”

The surviving reels are now scattered across France, the U.S. and elsewhere. And even when they are located, there are technical hurdles.

“A lot of material is in a lot of different formats,” Mr. Rompre explains.

Mr. Rompre and Mr. Balian reached out to several collections. In addition to accessing Mr. Molyvann’s private trove and consulting the National Archives and Bophana Center, they have licensed material from the A.P. Archive and France’s Institut national de l’audiovisuel MediaPro. They also have been granted permission to use photographs from the private collection of Charles Meyer, media advisor to King Norodom Sihanouk for several years.

As the images come together, the filmmakers say they are realizing the growing scope and significance of the project. Unearthing this history could not have come at a more pivotal time, as the country now confronts rapid urbanization.

“The final chapter of the movie is really about looking at Vann Molyvann’s buildings falling into disrepair. He gets marginalized from participating in the development of Cambodia and of Phnom Penh [in the 1990s]. And then we flash forward to today,” Mr. Rompre said.

“There’s a lot happening­—there’s a lot of wealth, there’s a lot of change, but it’s a very different kind of change.”

Although Mr. Molyvann’s build
ings survived decades of war and turbulent transition to peace, they are now threatened by rampant development in the capital.

“Many of his buildings have been lost due to neglect, to transformation,” art historian Mr. Collins said.

In 2008, Mr. Molyvann’s National Theater was torn down. His National Sports Complex, meanwhile, is quickly becoming engulfed by apartment buildings. As his creations languish, some wonder what will become of his legacy.

“[Cambodians] have all this great history to draw from,” Mr. Rompre said. “Will they take up this past and reinvent it to create a new vision of Cambodia in the future, or will it continue to be side
lined and marginalized?”

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