David Puttnam, producer of award-winning films such as The Killing Fields, and latterly a trade envoy for the UK prime minister, talks movies and sweating in a tweed suit
By Daniel Besant
What’s the purpose of your forthcoming visit to the region?
On this particular occasion I’m focusing on the film and creative industries and also meeting UK business leaders throughout the region.
When did you first arrive in the region?
The first time was in 1966. I went to Japan and on the way back I went to Bangkok, which at that point was a klong (canal) city. My first impression was disaster! They lost my luggage and I walked out in a tweed suit into the sweltering heat. That is my most vivid memory.
Will it be the first time you have visited Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar or Vietnam?
I’ve been to all of them. I was the UK president of Unicef and in that role I visited all of those countries. And of course, post-The Killing Fields, as soon as Cambodia opened up post-Pol Pot, I was there. Certainly within a year. And I’ve been visiting the region ever since.
The Act of Killing has just won a Bafta award for Best Documentary. Have you seen the film?
Yes. It’s the second time I’ve seen it win an award. It won at the European Film Awards in Berlin a couple of months ago. It’s a very impressive film.
It has a broadly similar theme to Rithy Panh’s work.
Yes, I was knocked out by The Missing Picture. I thought it was an extraordinary film. I think the very fact a Cambodian film got a [Oscar] nomination is a phenomenal success. It’s an outstanding film. It’s a breakthrough for the region.
In general, films from Southeast Asia are getting more of a profile in the West. Why do you think that is?
If you look at a few years ago, when I chaired the Asia-Pacific Film Festival, it was pretty well dominated by Chinese films. If you look at the successes at Berlin this year, it was an absolute Asian triumph. I would argue it’s a triumph at a level totally unimaginable even three years ago. So Asian cinema generally, not just Southeast Asian, has found an extraordinary new audience.
If you were to put your filmmaking hat on again, what films would you like to see coming out of Southeast Asia?
I watched that extraordinary documentary about Chinese people going home for new year, Last Train Home. I’d like to get a better, more vivid sense of what life is like on the streets for ordinary people. If you go back to the 1950s, the really extraordinary Japanese films of the 1950s, you got a sense of Japan. I’m not getting a sense of everyday China, for example.
I’m very, very impressed with Metro Manila. That is a fantastic film. What’s amazing about that is that it was made by a Brit who doesn’t actually speak Tagalog. The film is fabulous, the performances are sensational, absolutely sensational.
You are sitting in a place that is very rapidly becoming the cultural epicentre of the world. How long that will last I have no idea.
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