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The Last Reel and its Determinations: Through the Dark Period, and Beyond

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

A Cambodian Narrative, from a Cambodian Perspective

Eri Watanabe (hereinafter Watanabe): Watching The Last Reel, Ms. Kulikar, I must say that I was deeply moved. I found it was a story about a young woman slowly gaining her independence, and there were also many elements of film which I love, such as suspense, embedded in the storyline too. The ending, really, is breathtaking; so many secrets and plots that were scattered toward the end. As much as it may be difficult, I'd like to hear more from you without giving too much of these secrets away.
First, could you share with us how you came about making this film? What was your childhood like and what triggered you to go into film?

Sotho Kulikar (hereinafter Kulikar): To be honest, I tend to get a little emotional when asked about my childhood, so I apologize in advance if I start tearing up. I'll do my best not to.
My father was killed during the genocide, so my family consists of my mother and [younger] sister. My mother gave me a photograph of my father when I was 14 years old, and that was the first time I knew of his existence. Apparently, he was a pilot. The photograph was a small, passport-sized one, but I enlarged it stuck four copies on the four corners in my room so that I can see his face whenever I entered. I guess I wanted to feel his presence near me; I was that kind of girl. Life was tough for us, and my mother had an even harder time raising my sister and me, so I had to grow up fast and become an adult quickly.

Watanabe: The Killings Fields (1984) is a famous film, too, in Japan. Thousands lost their lives there but I now see your father was one of them.

Kulikar: Yes. He was killed, I think, because of his profession and also his sincerity. Many Cambodian families have lost loved ones, so I am no exception, but nevertheless there is no doubt that the absence of my father during my childhood influenced me. I never felt alone; my mother and the people around me always provided me with love. But the loss of my father constantly remained in my heart. It is a conflict which I will live with for the rest of my life, I think.

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Watanabe: I see. Could you tell us what motivated you to make The Last Reel?

Kulikar: Around 2001, after I was appointed Line Producer for Tomb Raider, I became eager to work in film as a filmmaker. Everything, literally everything, on the Tomb Raider set was eye-opening. And after the film was complete and I was invited to its Los Angeles premiere, it blew my mind away again when I saw everything I had seen on the set being projected onto the large screen. I was so moved that Cambodia was in a film, on this international stage, that it motivated me to make a film myself—as a Cambodian—and to deliver Cambodia and a film to the international film world.
The Last Reel is a film very close to me. I realized—I think it was around 2005—that I wanted to tell a story myself; to narrate a story on Cambodia and its people from the perspectives of a Cambodian. There are many films on Cambodia, but the majority of them are seen from the eyes of foreigners which tend to be more informational rather than affective. The world needs to see Cambodia not only from the outside, but also from the inside; it needs an insider's perspective that can narrate the stories of our country, our families, and our emotions.

History, for a Better Future

Watanabe: What amazes me, Ms. Kulikar, is that you made the protagonist's father a military officer despite your own father being killed by one. I'm sure there are many painful reasons behind that decision, but I'd like to ask you about why you made that character the protagonist's father. I don't think it's something anyone can do, to have that kind of trust in the power of film. Could you share with us your reasons for making that character who overlaps with the image of your father, into a military official?

Kulikar: As you say, there are many reasons for making the father figure an intriguing character. First, I wanted to portray a so-called traditional Cambodian father: the father as the family head who wants to protect his family, his daughter. In this day in age, especially for more economically developed countries, his methods of "protecting" may seem wrong, but in less economically developed countries—like Cambodia—the urge or duty to protect the daughter is still very strong, so I wanted to depict that type of father. Whether his methods are right or wrong is something I left for the audience to decide.

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This father figure has, moreover, multiple characters: he is a former Khmer Rouge member, and, in the present, an army colonel of high ranks. In 1998, in an attempt to restore peace, the Cambodian government incorporated Khmer Rouge members into the administration. I wanted to reflect this passage from Cambodian modern history into the film, a history which unfolded under the philosophy of "We have to listen to and live with each other." On the other side of this overpowering, formerly Khmer Rouge-dimension, by making him a father, I wanted to instill the fact that he is simultaneously a human being. While he previously belonged to Khmer Rouge, he is also a victim and carries the weight of his crimes. In the film, there is a line where he tells his daughter, "Do you understand that I have to live with my own sins?" so he is already punishing himself. I think that is a line that Cambodians needed to hear. Of course, it is not easy to forgive; but since we live in a closed society, I think it is all the more important to lend our ears to what others have to say. This film isn't about forgiving him; it about the Cambodian people listening to his voice. Giving this character an inner voice, I think other victims also get to hear him, which may, in turn, lead to understanding him a little better and possibly filling in the gap that separates each other.

Watanabe: It really is admirable how you have an objective eye towards this issue despite what has happened to your own father. You pose a question to the audience; you ask them, "What do you think? What will you take from this film?" But, at the same time, you embrace the fact that there is no one, simple answer. I think that strength stems from the very gentle yet strong heart of a woman; to place the protagonist, a young woman, in a state of conflict and maturation to come to terms with the world. You are superimposing this young woman with yourself?

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Kulikar: Yes, Sophoun is, to some degree, my own voice. Since I was about 14, I had strongly wished to know more about my family's history, but I could get myself to ask my mother about it. She was already raising my sister and me in such hard conditions; I did not want to upset her. I didn't have the means to know: there were no documents or textbooks, and the school teachers hardly taught us anything. So after 2000 and when many foreign journalists and filmmakers came to Cambodia to do research or make films on Khmer Rouge, I decided to volunteer and work with them as an interpreter and coordinator.
Working with the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in the mid-2000s on their documentary on Pol Pot *2 gave me the opportunity to really dig deep into the subject. One day during the shoot, we spoke to the survivors and perpetrators, listening carefully to how the former endured the tortures and the latter inflicted them and even the process of murdering the prisoners. On another day, we actually met with a Khmer Rouge leader who is commonly referred to as "Brother Number Two." Naturally, I was deeply affected by being involved, but I also realized two important things.
First, I better understood why my mother and other Cambodians do not wish to speak of or share their past. Good memories and bad memories are two sides of the same coin: when you speak of the good times, you are automatically reminded of the bad times because you've lost your loved ones during this time. That is why they do not want to speak of it. For many Cambodians, it is a coping mechanism that protects themselves as well as the children from their traumas.
My mother did not share the past with me either, but it was not ill-intentioned. It was to protect me. The burden she bares is truly unimaginable. And the younger generations of Cambodia get that, so they do not blame their parent(s) for this lack of communication. It is not about blame; it's rather about the Cambodian people finding out about the past for themselves. Nowadays, you have the internet that lets you access past histories of both good and bad without having to pry it out from your parent(s). The important thing is how you make use of your own histories; whether you remain traumatized by it, helpless, or learn from it for a better future.
Second, while it was difficult, being involved in the project made me realize what it is that I must do: I was to "tell a story;" to tell, my experiences—what I had endured and survived —with my own voice. In that sense, Sophoun is my voice, my eyes.
The Last Reel is a story based on "situation" and "emotion." It is the story of my family and other Cambodian family's situations, and also of the emotions of my own family. With that said, what I found challenging, during production, was, while reflecting my family's situations and emotions, to not only make the film about us, but to make it a story about Cambodia as a whole. It was easy to get emotional during filming, but it was imperative that I didn't get involved in the story as one of the characters, but took a step back, as the director, and made sure that the film depicted a larger narrative of Cambodia.

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*1 Line Producers oversee all pre-production activities from hiring and setting up the production team and office, dealing with location scouting, sourcing equipment and suppliers and crew. They prepare the production schedule, budget, and set the shoot date.

*2 "Pol Pot: The Journey to the Killing Fields," BBC Two Timewatch. First broadcast on November 11, 2005. Written and Directed by Andrew Williams.