Chris Rompré is a Canadian filmmaker based in Phnom Penh. He and Haig Balian – Rompré’s business partner and friend – have just finished their first narrative documentary, The Man Who Built Cambodia, which explores the life and work of Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann.
The documentary traces Molyvann’s career from the development of ‘New Khmer Architecture’, of which he was a central figure, to his return to Cambodia in the 1990s as he grapples with seeing many of his works being neglected or destroyed in the post-Khmer Rouge era.
Rompré talks to Nipa about how he and Balian came to produce this documentary and the support they’ve received along the way.
First up, tell us a little about yourself and what you make.
I’m a documentary and commercial filmmaker based out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. ‘What I make’ is constantly evolving, as I learn the craft of filmmaking and storytelling. I kind of fell into filmmaking accidentally after an internship with the UN gave me a chance to try my hand at it. Filmmaking fit my curious, interdisciplinary nature really well, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of opportunities when I decided to try and pursue it as a livelihood. After years of working with NGOs and humanitarian groups on short impact videos, I’m starting to work on longer format documentaries.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about Vann Molyvann?
To be honest, this project kind of fell into our lap. My friend and business partner, Haig Balian, and I had become a bit worn out by the grind of doing promotional work for other people, and were looking for an independent project to sink our teeth into. We were big fans of Vann Molyvann, and when a Canadian architect suggested we make a film about him, it just sort of clicked. As soon as we started talking to people about the film, it became clear that a lot of people were waiting for a project like this to be done. Within a month Silas Everett, from the Asia Foundation got in touch and offered us some seed money to get the project started. At the time we decided 2 months would be enough time to get this done – it’s three years later and it’s safe to say this project has swallowed us whole! But along the way our little weekend project has also turned into something far more profound that we ever imagined.
Was there anything that surprised while you were working on this project? Any unexpected discoveries or great revelations?
When we started this I was blown away by how humble Vann Molyvann is. Throughout our interviews he was always far more interested in the preservation and renewal of Khmer culture and identity, than talking about his buildings. When we asked him about the fire that gutted the National Theatre in 1992, arguably his masterwork, he told us it was a tragedy because it was there that Cambodian artists were trying to rebuild their culture after the cultural genocide of the Khmer Rouge era.
You funded this project through Indiegogo and exceeded your funding goal significantly, do you think crowdfunding the project affected your process in any way?
In a way, the crowdfunding was one of the best things we did for the project. It gives you a chance to connect directly with your most ardent and committed supporters. It also forces you really get your shit together – a super engaging trailer, a synopsis, a clear timeline etc.
Does Vann Molyvann know about the documentary? If so, do you know how he feel about it?
Moly has been very supportive of the project from the outset and has given us an amazing amount of access for the project. His daughter recently showed him the finished film and I’m told he has been quite moved by it, but I can’t wait to sit down with him and have a chat about it.
What’s your favourite cultural event or space in Southeast Asia?
For me, nothing beats going to Vann Molyvann’s Olympic Stadium in the heart of Phnom Penh and doing aerobics with the hundreds of other locals while the sun sets over the stadium’s majestic earthen crown.
Where/how can people see The Man Who Built Cambodia?
At the moment we’re just getting ready to release the film to our backers, who have waited very patiently after a series of delays. We’re also submitting the film to film festivals around the world and working with the Cambodian government to get a Cambodian premiere of the film greenlit. This last point has been a bit tricky because Vann Molyvann levels some fairly blunt criticism about the character of development in modern Cambodia. I hope the government will see this isn’t a specific attack on them, but rather a plea for Cambodians to not stand by and allow their rich and unique heritage to be compromised.