Chhun Piseth wins Venice festival ‘Best Actor’ for White Building role

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Director Kavich Neang accepts the Best Actor award on behalf of Chhun Piseth at the 78th annual Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy. AFP

Cambodia found itself in the spotlight at the 78th annual Venice Film Festival – the world’s oldest – held September 1-11 in Venice, Italy, this year when Cambodian actor Chhun Piseth won the festival’s “Best Actor” award for his role in Cambodian director Neang Kavich’s film White Building.

Kavich accepted the award on behalf of Piseth who was unable to attend the ceremony in-person but was just as excited about the honour as he watched it online from afar.

Piseth, 25, won the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Samnang in White Building.

The award is one of the most prestigious international acting honours ever won by a Cambodian, arguably surpassed only by the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor won by the late Haing S. Ngor in 1985 for his debut performance as journalist Dith Pran in the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

“I wish you were here with us tonight [Piseth] so that we could celebrate this prize together. Thank you so much for giving us your best and for your love and passion for the project. You are really amazing.

Back in Phnom Penh, Piseth told The Post that “my first impression when I heard from [Kavich] about winning the award was that I was very excited. I’m beyond happy and this is like a dream come true that I never imagined possibly happening in my life.”

White Building is Kavich’s second feature-length film as a director after the 2019 documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling. It follows the lives of Samnang and his friends who live in a tenement building and face eviction by the city when the property is slated for redevelopment.

The real life white building in Phnom Penh was a 450-metre long apartment building on Samdech Sothearos Blvd built in the early 1960s by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap. It suffered damage from rocket propelled grenades during the war between Lon Nol’s regime and the Khmer Rouge and was left empty thereafter for a number of years.

Squatters occupied the building after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and it eventually became a gathering place for artists where they could paint, hold dance rehearsals and even practice circus arts.

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A screengrab from White Building. The film follows the life of Samnang and his friends living in a tenement building and facing eviction by the city to make way for a new development. SUPPLIED

It continued on that way for decades until the beloved – though admittedly dilapidated and run-down – structure was demolished in 2017 to make way for a new development.

The film’s director Kavich – who also served as the film’s cinematographer – was born in 1987 and was actually raised in the landmark building.

His father – a sculptor – was among those living in the real life white building who had to pack their belongings and relocate when it was scheduled for demolition.

“It was a nightmare, and it was really painful to see all that happen. Sometimes I would imagine the actual white building, hearing the sounds from the empty corridors during the demolition in my mind over and over again,” Kavich told entertainment industry news outlet Variety.

Though the award for best actor from the festival is an individual honour by nature, Piseth insists that it reflects the achievements of the entire cast and crew and he dedicated his win to them.

“You can’t make a movie without the whole team of people involved, so the prize goes to everyone who took part in producing the film,” Piseth says.

White Building is Piseth’s second film following his debut in another Kavich production, the short film New Land Broken Road.

Winning such a high-profile award will undoubtedly bring him further international recognition and exciting career opportunities, but Piseth’s life has had relatively humble beginnings so far.

According to Piseth, his real life story bears some similarities to that of Samnang, the character he plays in White Building.

“First, Samnang is a young man who finds his dream through dancing and I am also an artist and I began my career as a dancer before getting into acting. Samnang is also under a lot of pressure from his family in the film due to his passion for the arts and I can really relate to and understand these feeling myself,” he says, adding that he is the third of five siblings from a tradition-minded family in Kandal’s Lvea Aem district.

Piseth was lucky enough to be able to afford higher education and he graduated from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia with a degree in industrial and mechanical engineering. He also studied English at Phnom Penh International University.

The arts still beckoned to him, however, and he continued to perform and began working on his skills as an actor in earnest.

“I trained with [film producer] Meas Sreyline for six months before we began filming. I also read about and discussed the character and everything with [Kavich] and that provided me with more understanding about the situation and the lives of the white building’s residents,” he explains.

He says the character Samnang is based on a real life white building resident who was among the many people who lived in the building before it was torn down. His father had fallen ill and become disabled and he and his family members had to leave the city and move to the provinces once the white building was condemned.

White Building premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 7 and it was produced by the Cambodian filmmaking collective Ant-Archive along with Apsara Films in association with Xstream Pictures and Kongchak Pictures.

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A screengrab shows Piseth (left) as Samnang in White Building. His performance earned him the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor at the 78th Venice Film Festival in Italy, which ran from September 1-11. SUPPLIED

The project was supported in part by the Cambodia Film Commission, the Pour un Sourire d’Enfant School of Media, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Cambodian cinema department.

However, even with all that local support, Kavich’s film still faced financial challenges and he sought out additional supporters and sponsors at home and abroad.

“I hope to share this wonderful honour with all of the other Cambodian filmmakers, artists and people who are facing similar challenges in creating their artworks,” Kavich is quoted as saying in Variety after his film was selected to the Venice festival and in regards to the arduous process of funding the project.

American director Jake Wachtel, whose Cambodia-set science-fiction film Karmalink was chosen as the opening film for the 36th Venice International Film Critics’ Week – a parallel event to the main Venice Film Festival that has its own programme focused on debut films – says he was thrilled to see that White Building was premiering at the festival because it was a Cambodian film by a Cambodian director.

“I’m really excited to see [White Building] as well. I’m so happy for them and happy to be playing a part in raising the visibility of Cambodian cinema. And I hope that it just keeps continuing to grow,” Wachtel said in a previous interview with The Post.

Next up for White Building is the BFI London Film Festival and in March, 2022, it will undoubtedly be representing Cambodia as the official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in Hollywood.

For more details about the film check out its Facebook page: @WhiteBuildingFilm or its website: www.antiarchive.com/whitebuilding.html.