Restored Films Offer Glimpses Into Indochina

A group of princesses rehearsing ballet at Angkor Wat. The meticulous plowing, planting and harvesting of a rice field in Cochinchina. Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai expressing fealty to the collaborationist Vichy government of France in 1941.

These are just a few of the scenes from the past that Cambodian viewers will be able to see for the first time when, starting this evening, the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh will begin a week of screenings of 18 freshly restored films about French Indochina and Asia in the early 20th century.

A still image from 'Harmonieux ombrages d'Indochine,' or 'Harmonious Shades of Indochina'
A still image from ‘Harmonieux ombrages d’Indochine,’ or ‘Harmonious Shades of Indochina’

Entitled “Archives at Risk: Protecting the World’s Identities—Memories of Indochina,” the weeklong event is intended to highlight the importance of preserving film archives, as well as offer Cambodians a rare glimpse into their country’s history. It is being staged in conjunction with the Institut Francais, the Center for Khmer Studies and Unesco to coincide with Unesco’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage.

“When you watch film, you feel it. Because you see moving image, and you feel it. You can discover the identity, you can discover the daily life of the people,” said Chea Sopheap, director of the Bophana Center.

All of the 18 films, some short and others full-length, were produced by French filmmakers between 1910 and 1976, and were recently restored by the French Centre National Du Cinema et de L’Image Animee. Most focus on French Indochina—a colonial designation comprising modern-day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos—although a few also show scenes from China.

Some are straightforward documentary films highlighting the French colonial government’s successes in Indochina. “Harmonieux ombrages d’Indochine” (“Harmonious Shades of Indochina,” 1938), for example, focuses on the rubber industry in Vietnam and Cambodia and shows the harvest and export of latex to France, as well as the construction of hospitals, schools and factories under the French colonial regime. Similarly, “La Cite Engloutie” (“The Lost City,” 1947) follows a group of French archaeology students on a journey to help reconstruct a temple at Angkor Wat.

The earliest film in the series, “Cochinchina and Small Indigenous Industries,” dates from 1910. It is a silent tour around a town in what is now southern Vietnam, showing locals dying clothes, carving figurines, weighing pigs, making pancakes and sharpening scissors.

All of this week’s screenings are free of charge and will begin tonight at 6 p.m. with “Princesses d’Angkor” and “La Cite Engloutie.” Tonight’s event will also feature a talk on colonial Indochina by Henri Locard, a French scholar of Cambodia.

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