With Funan, his feature film debut, Denis Do took on his family’s remarkable history, coming to understand and connect with it in an entirely new way. Set in Cambodia in April of 1975, the animated drama examines a mother who has been torn from her 4-year-old son, struggling to endure the realities of life under the Khmer Rouge regime, while pursuing her lost child.

Born in Paris and raised in three cultures—those of France, China and Cambodia—the director had little connection growing up to the truth of the Khmer Rouge, and what life was really like for those at their mercy. “As far as I can remember, when I was around three or four years old, I was not able to finish my dish, and my mum told me that I had to pay respect to all the victims during the Khmer Rouge regime,” Do recalls. “Because before, people had nothing to eat.”

When his mother would reference followers of Communist Party of Kampuchea, she would call them “the black suit men,” conjuring in Do’s young mind images of “black silhouettes,” and monstrous, evil people. To Do, growing up, the Khmer Rouge were bogeymen, a dark specter lingering over his relatives’ lives. In making Funan, though, the director would need to leave this association behind, making an effort to understand who these all-too-human antagonists really were.

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When did you first experience Cambodia for yourself? How did this experience come to shape Funan?

I went to Cambodia in 1995. My father almost forced me to go there to discover his country, and it was a shock for me. I was not prepared to be face to face with the scars of the civil war, and so much poverty. So, in some way, I hated Cambodia at that time. I went there again in 1997 with my mother, my little brother, and it was quite a different experience because I was able to meet survivors from my family, my auntie, uncle, cousins. During the beginning of July, my mother came back to the hotel very panicked. I didn’t understand why she was like that. But the next morning at 4, we all escaped to Vietnam. During the escape, I heard my mum say something like, “I don’t want my son to be faced with the same stuff I was before.” And when we came back to France, I understood that during the beginning of July, there were tanks and soldiers in Cambodia, in the streets of Phnom Penh. I guess it reminded my mother of many bad memories, so I started to put aside all the family testimonies and look by myself at the real historical parts.

The first picture I saw of the Khmer Rouge in my life was of Pol Pot, the Khmer soldiers, and they were not just silhouettes; they were human. Everything had started to become huge in my mind, and I told myself that one day, we needed to tell those stories—because this is such a huge heritage—through comics or a novel. Life brought me to animation, and during my last year in Gobelins, the French animation school, my classmate and I were smoking together, and I was talking to him about my mother’s experience. And in a very friendly way, he told me, “You have to make a film with it.” Maybe I was naïve, but I took it very seriously. That was maybe in March or April 2009. We graduated in June, and in July, I started to research, and ask my mom about her past again, to be very precise.

What emotions did this process stir up in you, early on?

I didn’t experience the Khmer Rouge regime myself, so I had enough distance from that. I think it in some way allowed me to connect back with those Cambodian roots I used to hate before. I could tell that through my mother’s testimonies, her stories, I loved Cambodia again. It was also a kind of therapy for me. I didn’t feel any pain making this film; the feeling was closer to some kind of release. It was really personal, really intimate. I was really dedicated to these stories. That’s why we spent so many years with all the artists, and the production company, also, with a lot of authenticity. The story [needed to be] really personal, to connect with the history, the cold reality of it. That’s why, for example, we created all the characters and the design of the film in such a realistic way. Because I didn’t want the audience to be faced with a cartoon.

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Also, the backgrounds were completely inspired by how Cambodia looks today. This is always what I feel when I go to Cambodia. When I go to the countryside, I can see the best sunset and sunrise there, because the land is so flat that the horizon is infinite. The sky is white, and every time, in those moments, you feel yourself connected with your environment. There’s no ‘nature’ and ‘you’—everything is the same. I wanted the film to translate some of these feelings, this image I have of Cambodia. Some shots would have huge landscapes erasing the characters, because after all, they’re only dust. And sometimes, the emotion and psychology of the characters can occupy the whole screen, in close shots. There was a game of contrasts I wanted to use in the film.

Can you give a more detailed account of the historical research you took on, as you set out to bring Funan to life?

It was of course absolutely necessary to [draw] research from historical books. But also, from autobiographical novels, and every one of them is so interesting. There is one novel from the Cambodian actors of The Killing Fields that was really, hugely inspiring. Why do I mention this book? Because in terms of characters, when he escaped, when he passed through the Cambodian regime, he was more or less the same age as the main character of the film. Lots of other novels depict young children, and as my film wants to tell the story of a young woman, it was quite interesting to have the point of view of someone, even if it was a man, who was the same age.

What decisions did you come to in terms of how you would depict the terror and violence associated with the Khmer Rouge?

It appeared to me that during all the testimonies of my mother, when I was young, I was really greedy about the atrocities, about the violence. I asked for many details about it, and I understood that I was maybe interested about such stuff because I was under a kind of voyeurism. When I started the film, I didn’t want the film to be like that. Also, this is not a trial against the Khmer Rouge, this film. This is not a listing about what the Khmer Rouge has done to the population. You can read all that stuff; you can learn it through books, through Wikipedia. The film didn’t mean to explore too much of such stuff, because it’s all about context. It appeared to me also that every time my mother mentioned the atrocities, she was quite [affected] by events that were not always linked directly to her own story. To be witness to some things doesn’t mean that you live the events as the victims. So, I needed a very straight story. I didn’t want the character to move away from her real target, which was finding her son.

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More than the violence, the most important thing for me was being able to depict some Khmer Rouge characters, to introduce some of them as human—because they are not from another planet, the Khmer Rouge. They were born in Cambodia, raised in Cambodia, and they are Cambodians. Many people [don’t want to admit] that in their family, there were Khmer Rouge. This is a big secret; this is taboo in Cambodia. And it’s strange that in some villages, victims and former [members of] the Khmer Rouge are neighbors. But they don’t talk at all about the past. It sounds like a very strange situation, and the film will not solve such a situation, but I just wanted to highlight the Khmer Rouge more as humans. Some of them, maybe lot of them, can feel empathy, could feel guilty today. But there’s no good side and bad side. There are victims, and there are the Khmer Rouge, and between the two extreme, we have different levels of psychology.

One particularly striking scene features victims of the Khmer Rouge crossing through a river full of land mines, in pursuit of safety. Was this moment drawn from your family’s direct experience?

This is something my mother passed through, and to be honest with you, this is not something we have shown in the film, but my brother passed land mines in the river twice, and it always marked me a lot. I described this scene to my friend at Gobelins before, and when my mother’s husband told everyone that we should let other people cross before [us], it was not really moral to say that. But in order to survive, you have no choice.

How did you use music and sound design to build up your portrait of Cambodia?

I discovered the way I like to work during the production of the film. It appeared to me that I needed music to build picture, but also to build ideas. [In the beginning], I start to quickly draw some rough thumbnails, and I don’t need to show those to the composer. I just write the music, all the themes I need. I gave each one a title related to the characters, and each theme has a beginning, a middle step and a conclusion; each theme can tell a story by itself. I sent these to the composer, and he started to compose everything, and sent everything back to me, and then I could start to build the picture with the script and the music. The music of the film really leads a lot of things. I wanted the music to lead the picture, not the opposite. For me, the pictures only describe facts—events, facts, situations. We can feel, of course, the expression, the emotion of the characters. But the music leads and drives the emotion, every time. I wanted the music in the film to have such life.

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With the sound design, the first priority was to be really close to the reality—how the Cambodian jungle can be alive, can breathe. Also, we used music from the ’70s at the beginning in order to make it very colorful, very alive, and to contrast it very suddenly with the Khmer Rouge theme, which is more using iron instruments, with a melody that’s very strong, very military, very cold. Almost lifeless. The ’70s before the Khmer Rouge was a kind of lost paradise.

This year, Funan took the Annecy International Animated Film Festival’s top prize. That must have been quite a moment for you.

I can tell you that when I received the award for the film, I was crying. It was raising so much emotion, to be honest with you. I finished the film one week before the first screening in Annecy, because I redid all the editing at that moment. I spent so much time on it, and I have no distance anymore with anything on the film. I just wondered why Annecy selected the film: Maybe they had bad taste, or this is a big mistake? But after the first screening, I saw people coming out of the theater to congratulate the artists, and then we started to believe that maybe this film is not bad as I thought.

What do you hope people will take away from this film, which is so personal to you?

I’m afraid that during our era now, all over the world, media communication runs so fast that you can see a film and tomorrow, you will forget it. It’s a kind of fast food of media, of audiovisual content, and I’m quite afraid of that. I hope the film will help to open a kind of door for the audience for such an animated film. I expect animation to explore many more kinds of subjects, because everyone has personal stories to tell, and it’s huge.