‘The Roots Remain’ (‘Retour aux sources’): Phnom Penh Review

The Roots Remain Still 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of HG Distribution
A deft doc steeped in emotion.

The Canadian directorial duo's debut follows Montreal-based graffiti artisti FONKi's rediscovery of his family's Cambodian origins as he finishes a mural in the country's capital.

Chronicling a Cambodian-Canadian graffiti artist's personal trek in reconnecting with his family's and his ancestral land's tragic Khmer Rouge-affected past, The Roots Remain is a mesmerizing documentary boasting immense intellectual depth and emotional heft. Backed by Rithy Panh — who no doubt provided a lot of advice and help in sourcing and weaving stunning archive footage into the film — first-time directors Jean-Sebastien Francoeur and Andrew Marchand-Boddy have produced a moving hybrid of reflections on how history and hip-hop factor into Cambodia's social and cultural existence. The Roots Remain is bound for a more sustained run beyond the filmmakers' "home" territories after its first show outside North America at the Cambodia International Film Festival.

The title stems from a scene early on in the film, when graffiti artist FONKi is seen coming to terms with how he could practice his art during his three-month stay in Cambodia. Dismayed by the way the authorities painted over his first mural — despite having actively sought out and received the green light from the local police chief before he set to work — he sprays "The Roots Remain" over the now whitewashed wall. While a tag born out of frustration, the phrase could point to the Paris-born, Montreal-raised artist's efforts to acknowledge ancestral origins obscured by his upbringing in the white, Western hemisphere. It could also be a howl against power-wielding players seeking to wipe out Cambodia's social fabric, from the Khmer Rouge's murderous ideology of the past to present-day vulture-like entrepreneurs with their slash-and-burn property development projects.

Francoeur and Marchand-Boddy have managed to deliver a coherent narrative outlining the multiple perspectives through which Cambodia's past and present can be understood. What makes The Roots Remain an engaging exercise is the way it guides the viewer into understanding the country just as the protagonist does. Having grown up listening to all those tales about life in that far-flung Asian country on the other side of the world — experiences shown here through home videos of FONKi's grandparents and parents recalling the past while in forced exile in Canada — the artist says he aims to "wake things up" in Cambodia as he takes up a commission for a piece on the wall of the French Institute in the country's capital of Phnom Penh.

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As he digs in, however, FONKi discovers he's actually the one in store for an awakening. In addition to his brush with unsympathetic bureaucrats, he is left dumbstruck as he visits impoverished families living in squalor after being forcibly relocated from their homes to make way for urban redevelopment projects — the biggest eviction of its kind since the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh of its population.

Meanwhile, he also bonds with local musicians and graffiti artists, many of whom — like California-raised poet Kosal Khiev or producer Visal Sok — have been busy fusing traditional Cambodian culture with their cutting-edge aesthetics. FONKi furthers his immersion in Cambodian life through various trips to the countryside, where he conducts workshops — with his rudimentary grasp of the Khmer language — with local children in a fishing village. All this has certainly humbled FONKi. Then again, the artist, who admits in his voiceover that he got into some trouble at home in Canada as a teenager, comes across more as a thinker than a delinquent anyway. With their lavish camerawork, Francoeur and Marchand-Boddy successfully evoke the melancholy and muted anxiety within their protagonist amid the awe and wonder of the landscapes.

And just as the film's title suggests, roots matter greatly for FONKi: his mission here, after all, is a mural paying homage to elders who have suffered or perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Interwoven with snippets of footage showing FONKi's emaciated great-grandparents returning to their crumbling house after years of hardship under the extremist regime, The Roots Remain quietly but powerfully outlines the trauma still gripping FONKi's family.

Directors/producers/directors of photography: Jean-Sebastien Francoeur, Andrew Marchand-Boddy

Executive producer: Yavana Chhem-Kieth

Editor: Edmund Stenson

Music: Rob Viktum

International Sales: HG Distribution

In French, Khmer and English

No rating; 73 minutes