Festival to Honor 1900s Filmmaker in Cambodia

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The Cambodia International Film Festival opens to the public this Friday, showcasing an array of films from all over the world. The opening film for this year’s festival is Raphael Millet’s documentary about the mysterious Gaston Méliès – one of the first filmmakers to film Cambodia.

Using recovered footage and retracing the steps of Mr. Méliès, Mr. Millet and Nocturnes Productions’ will be showing the man and his Wandering Star Film Company for the opening of the CIFF. The remarkable filmmaking of Mr. Méliès was often overshadowed by the works of his more famous younger brother, George Méliès, known for his sci-fi short film, “A Trip to the Moon.” 

Gaston Méliès was more known for his exploration. He set off to travel the world, but ended up becoming one of the first people to record the South Pacific, New Zealand, Australia, Tahiti, Southeast Asia and Japan in 1912 and 1913. Mr. Méliès embarked on his expedition with his family and a film crew of over 20 people in the hopes of capturing ‘exotic’ subjects.

Mr. Millet’s interest in films led him to do film studies and then to write books about cinema around the world. Since 2007, he branched into filmmaking and started his own production house, called Nocturnes Productions, based in France. Since then, he has made documentaries about the history of cinema. In addition to being the opening film, there will be two public screenings on Sunday and Monday, where the audience can discuss the movie with Mr. Millet.

Hunt for the Mysterious Filmmaker

“My curiosity was first tickled in 2000, while going to Polynesia for the first time,” said Mr. Millet. “I read a book about the history of film in South Pacific – in a footnote, there was a very short and vague mention that some G. Méliès had filmed in Tahiti in the 1910s.” Uncertain if the name had any relation to the famous George Méliès, Mr. Millet investigated.

According to Mr. Millet’s memories, the iconic French filmmaker, often referred to as the “Cinemagician” who was internationally famous for his 1902 ‘Trip to the Moon’ and his many other ‘imaginary trips’, had hardly ever left his Montreuil studio near Paris. In 2002, Mr. Millet found an old film poster with the name “G. Méliès” from the 1910s and was associated with Angkor Wat in Cambodia – his curiosity piqued. 

Contacting the Méliès family in Paris, Mr. Millet discovered that George had a brother named Gaston, who had embarked on a round-the-world trip that took him all around Asia-Pacific.

“I started finding Gaston’s life more and more fascinating,” said Mr. Millet. “I thought there might be a nice and interesting story to tell.”

Tediously selecting movie shots recovered from the Méliès’ family in France, Mr. Millet had to digitize everything on his own dime at Eclair studio. 

In early 2012, a film collector based in Switzerland, David Pfluger, offered the use of his large collection of photographs and other documents about Gaston’s journey that he had gathered over the years. Searching through film archives in Amsterdam, Wellington, Washington, Paris, London, Canberra, Rome and Tokyo, he found two of Méliès’ “Polynesian” movies at the Library of Congress in Washington.

 In 2013, two prints surfaced. They were fragments of movies shot in the Angkor area – the footage which was later used in the documentary. He only found five surviving movies out of the 64 films made by Gaston Méliès during his voyage. 

History Uncovered 

“My hope is that this documentary will revive interest about Gaston Méliès, and perhaps help public archives and private collectors look into some old “G. Méliès” print that they had overlooked or thought of as unimportant,” Mr. Millet stated. “If another print of his “shot-in-Cambodia” movies reappeared, this would be incredible, and would constitute another remarkable piece of shared film heritage between France and Cambodia.”

What’s important to note is also that Gaston Méliès was possibly the first major film producer to come to Cambodia with such a large ‘cinematograph outfit’, as they called it in the press. Furthermore, he was one of the very first, if not the first, to film fiction on location with local people. 

Hoping the documentary can be a resource for future filmmakers who are interested in how Cambodia looked in the 1910s, Mr. Millet said the “cinematic adventure” on the Tonlé Sap and in the ruins of Angkor at a time when they were still largely covered by the jungle could very well be a source of inspiration.

“I hope local audience in Cambodia will be thrilled to see some of the earliest moving images shot in the ever-so iconic Angkor, and that it will give them an opportunity to reflect upon the early days of cinema in Cambodia, as well as on the passing of time. I also hope they will also see it as an interesting piece of shared heritage between France and Cambodia.”

Seeing a revival of film in Cambodia through the works of Davy Chou, Rithy Panh, and others, Mr. Millet is excited to see more.

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