Award-winning French film director Bertrand Tavernier is in Phnom Penh finalizing the details of production for his latest feature film, an exploration of adoptions in Cambodia, which have been illegal in France since late July.
Taking time off from cast screening last month, he discussed the film’s plot, the French ban and the challenges of shooting on the streets of Phnom Penh.
“Holy Lola,” scheduled for shooting this month, aims to reflect the controversial topic of adoption with the gravity Tavernier says it deserves. It is set one-and-a-half years ago, before the French ban was in place. Tavernier, who has a reputation as a political hard-liner, does not support the French ruling.
Adoption “should not be caricatured and at the same time it should not be over sentimentalized—it’s a very difficult subject,” Tavernier said.
The film centers on a French country doctor, played by Jacques Gamblin, and his wife, a shopkeeper played by actress Isabelle Carre. Having formed an agreement with the French government, they come to Phnom Penh to adopt a Cambodian orphan.
Although French actors Bruno Putzolo and Maria Pitaressi will co-star, nonprofessional Cambodian actors will be featured in smaller roles and as extras.
Much of the film will be shot in the discreet Rega guest house on Street 75. The guest house was at one time popular among French couples looking to adopt, due to its proximity to the French Embassy and its French cuisine, Rega proprietor Vann Touch said.
Other scenes in the film will take place in restaurants and unidentified orphanages around the city. Filming will also take place in Kep municipality, where the couple visit an orphanage but are unable to secure an adoption.
More than 20 actors and crew members will arrive from France to star alongside local talent.
The film will detail the French couple’s “discovery of the country, their failures, their joys…their misunderstandings,” Tavernier said.
“It’s very moving and very beautiful to see the way the new mother discovers the child, the intensity of love,” he said. “I want to show that.”
The film will explore the tensions caused by the unknown factors surrounding Cambodian orphans. “Adoption is difficult because you have the fear of having a baby which has AIDS, or [tuberculosis] or hepatitis…and that’s the subject of the film,” Tavernier said.
The director has changed his plans for the film’s conclusion several times, but he currently says the couple will succeed in their adoption. Like his cinematic idols, Tavernier aims to leave gaps in the plot for his actors to improvise.
Tavernier co-wrote the film with his daughter and son-in-law. All three made a trip to Cambodia and spent several weeks living with couples attempting to adopt, “listening to their emotions, their frustrations…how sometimes they did not understand what was happening.”
He was particularly taken aback by the amount of bureaucracy the French government required to let couples adopt. The director also consulted doctors, NGOs and government officials before writing the preliminary script.
Back in France, Tavernier likes to see himself as something of a political antagonist, and he asserts that two of his previous films have changed French law.
He is an outspoken critic of France’s ban on its citizens adopting Cambodian children. Strict regulation of the adoption procedure is necessary to prevent baby trafficking, he said. But he believes the ban is excessive, and labeled his government’s adoption policy as “rather dogmatic.”
Anybody should be able to adopt a child from another country, he said, provided there is proof that the child has not been stolen and has been given up willingly. “You need to have bureaucracy when you deal with adoption to prevent stolen kids, and you need to have a lot of protection,” he said. But “between protection and an excessive bureaucracy there is a whole world.”
He acknowledged that foreign adoption schemes have led to corruption and child trafficking in many countries. “But [adoption] can’t be compared to sexual crime…to the rape of children,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)