French director talks about his Royal Ballet documentary, now in cinemas
XAVIER de Lauzanne worked in the hospitality industry for 10 years before deciding to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. He’s made several documentaries since he began his film career, including Les Pepites or Little Gems, a film about an NGO in Cambodia, as well as a second more recent Cambodian documentary called The Perfect Motion, which focuses on Cambodia’s Royal Ballet.
The next project he is working on will be the third part of a trilogy that he shot on location in Syria and Iraq that focuses on the aftermath of the wars there.
Currently, The Perfect Motion or Tep Hatta in Khmer is playing in cinemas and touring around Cambodia. Lauzanne spoke with The Post about the documentary and his career as a filmmaker.
What inspired you to produce this documentary?
I began to imagine a film about the Royal Cambodian Ballet in 2017 when I met Prince Tesso Sisowath who was the right-hand man of Princess Buppha Devi. He opened the doors of the Royal Ballet to me. I then got to work with Pierre Kogan, who had lived in Cambodia longer than I had and who knew the local art scene well.
We did some research and quickly realised the richness of the subject and the incredible story we had in our hands. But it is the story of the meeting between Auguste Rodin and the dancers of the royal ballet in 1906 in Paris that definitively made me decide to embark on this adventure.
I am a French director in Cambodia, so I needed to feel that I was doing this legitimately in appropriating this subject. Fortunately, the ties between the Royal Ballet and France have always been close, and I would even say that it is the recognition of the ballet abroad that has favoured its survival after the Khmer Rouge period, in addition to the tremendous work done by the surviving ballet masters and Princess Buppha Devi.
What is the core message of the film?
The beauty and survival of an ancestral art. The film is about the question of identity. The two symbols that characterise Cambodia are Angkor Wat and the Apsara dancer. The importance of culture as an influence on a nation is too often underestimated by the public and authorities.
King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Kossamak were well aware of this and they modernised the Royal Ballet to make it a tool of influence for their reign when Cambodia was called “The Pearl of Asia”.
Today, after a period of great turbulence when issues about the arts have become secondary, to say the least, the film reminds us that to build a great nation, with a people who are proud of themselves, culture must once again become a priority.
What are some of the challenges you faced while producing this documentary?
There were two major challenges in producing this film. The first was financial. People with financial power invest very little in culture. It took a long time to find the partners who agreed to come with us and I thank them very sincerely.
The second was artistic: how to make a film about an art whose language belongs to Cambodians, but has the power to speak to everyone? I wanted to give the film a universal dimension because, for me, this story is a great example of how to regain dignity after losing everything.
Every nation is committed to its traditions, but there is always a risk of losing them, because of modernity, because of a war, because of exile … We are all aware of this risk. In terms of form, in order for language to be universal, I conceived the film as a link between cultures using the tools provided by cinema.
For example, the mixture of Rodin’s watercolours with the current gestures of the dancers, a musical composition at the border of the two worlds, a narrative between the present and the past that leads us into a great story in the manner of “Once Upon a Time”, and a whole set of staging ideas accessible to all.
The film is now screening in Cambodia. What level of interest are you seeing from the public, particularly young people?
The film has had a very good start in cinemas in its first few days and the feedback is incredibly moving, whether it is from Cambodians or foreigners, and it comes from all generations.
Everyone feels concerned. We have been meeting the young people at the Bonn Phum Festival and the Royal University of Fine Arts Festival [Talents and Five Elements] in recent days. The Cambodian students all told us how happy they are to discover a story that they know little about and yet it belongs to them in a profound way.
Most importantly, they all talk about how proud they are of their culture after watching the film. Revisiting the recent history of Cambodia through the arts is a novelty for them that makes them particularly receptive.
On the other hand, most of them have never seen a documentary film in the cinema and they are surprised to find that they like it! They see that the film is a real cinematic movie experience that is captivating from beginning to end.
What was the most rewarding aspect of producing this documentary?
Working for the future, for youths, is how I make sense of my commitment, but there are also other rewarding aspects. The recognition from King Norodom Sihamoni and the words of extreme kindness that he had for me about the film after the premiere in Chaktomuk moved me deeply.
Also, seeing families with grandparents, parents and grandchildren all going to the cinema to watch the film is very touching. Because the film is creating a bond within their families. The films that can bring together so many generations and allow them to speak freely together are not numerous. I am also touched by the testimony of foreigners who discover with great satisfaction aspects of Cambodia that they knew little about but now have great admiration for.
What do you appreciate most about the Royal Ballet tradition?
I learned from the dance of the Royal Ballet, its great richness, beyond the first impressions, which are necessarily limited, that one can have as a foreigner. The idea of using movement to express an emotion is absolutely different from what we have in Europe.
Auguste Rodin in Paris and George Groslier in Phnom Penh explained it very well at the beginning of the last century. It is also rare in the west for a dance to be related to the divine. I feel great respect for the sacred dimension of this dance.
On that subject, the Khmer title Tep Hatta means The Heavenly Hands and it promotes more of the sacred dimension of the ballet than the English and French titles. In French, the title is La Beaute du Geste. This corresponds to a French expression that has a double meaning: the grace of the literal physical gesture and also the figurative idea of the grand gesture, which is any honourable act that is one of greatness or selflessness.
In English, our title is The Perfect Motion. This corresponds to the idea of the perfect gesture which requires a great deal of skill and technique. And the word motion also evokes the question of the images: The drawings, the photos, the cinema, all these representations of the ballet that accompany the movements and record its history and who made it great.
Art has no one truth. The perception of beauty is universal but it passes through forms that often have nothing in common with each other. It is always fascinating for me to discover new paradigms and to confront my identity and my way of observing and thinking in order to compare that with the perspectives of others.