Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, approaches the subject of genocide in Southeast Asia from an unusual angle. Where Oppenheimer explored genocide through reenactments by the Pemuda Pancasila, the paramilitary organization that boasts of killing thousands of Indonesians in the mid-1960s, Chou approaches the subject sideways, by asking survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime who worked in Cambodia’s film industry to speak about the brief golden age of cinema they enjoyed from 1960 to 1975, a period that mostly only survives in memory, as many of the film prints from this time period were destroyed. To be sure, Chou’s doc is about Cambodia’s film history, but because that history was shaped by genocide (most of the actors and crew were killed, and movie theaters were closed because they were seen as a sign of a “corrupt society”), Golden Slumbers inevitably addresses this unspeakable subject, not only because it interrupted film history, but also because it’s the more powerful subject, one that indelibly defined people’s lives and their country.
One of the documentary’s strong points is Chou’s choice to—save for a final, haunting scene—eschew the use of clips from the films that did survive. Instead, his film features actors, directors, and cinephiles sharing their memories of making and seeing these movies, all of which has the effect of making the Golden Slumbers into “a documentary of the imagination,” to quote Oppenheimer on how The Act of Killing similarly restrains from literal depictions of events that it describes. But, equally as important, Chou’s unconventional choice to rely on people’s memories instead of using clips from films they’re referencing mirrors the fact that many of Cambodia’s films, and their history, have largely been lost, and puts value back on people who’ve historically been undervalued, both by the Khmer Rouge and, by lack of mention, cinema history at large.
While we hear from certain actors, like Dy Saveth, and hear a little about some films, like The Seahorse, a would-be blockbuster from 1975 that was never screened theatrically, the film isn’t interested in trying to establish for Western audiences what the landmark Camodian films and key players of yesteryear were (there’s also no mention of the nation’s present-day cinema). It’s unclear whether that was because of insufficient information or if this was just an artistic choice on the part of Chou, who has a tendency to embellish his images with silhouettes, tracking shots, and pans, not to mention beautiful songs and moody audio overlays from Cambodian films. Whatever the case, this lack of information creates the feeling of irreparable damage, and it suggests that a large part of this bruised, obscure history may vanish with this people’s generation.