Daniel Mattes

Image: Last Night I Saw You Smiling (Kavich Neang, 2018, documentary; Cambodia). [source]

In August 2019 we met Daniel Mattes at, Tini, the cafe he co-owns in Phnom Penh. We discussed his background and the roles he's played at Anti-Archive, Davy Chou's production company. Having recently co-produced Kavich Neang's feature film, Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Daniel was in the midst of co-writing a narrative feature film with Neang. 


1. Daniel’s introduction | 2. Meeting Davy Chou | 3. The beginnings of Anti-Archive | 4. Anti-archive as collective | 5. Expanding anti-archive | 6. Anti-archive and the role of the city | 7. Currents Festival 8. Transnational connections | 9. Cineclub discussinos | 10. Local distribution and exhibition | 11. Alternative and art house circuits | 12. The future of Anti-Archive

1. Daniel's Introduction.

Daniel Mattes discusses working in multiple roles for Anti-Archive, switching between producer, press agent, and sales agent, and how his interest in international crime tribunals brought him to live in Cambodia, where he works for a monitoring program for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Section 1: 0:00:00 - 0:02:20 (2:20)

2. Meeting Davy Chou.

Daniel describes his interest in film, which began as a personal passion. While in London, Daniel attended a screening of Golden Slumbers by Davy Chou; during the last 15 minutes, the film stopped working. Daniel met Davy through a friend who had done research for the film, and the two hit it off. Davy shared the ending of the film that Daniel had missed, and the two discussed Apichatpong—a sign for Daniel sign that their cinephilia aligned. When Kavich Neang was shooting Three Wheels in early 2015, Daniel began helping with English subtitles on the film. Section 2: 0:02:20 - 0:04:50 (2:29)
The trailer for Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, 2013)

3. The beginnings of anti-archive.

In 2016, Davy shot Diamond Island. When the film got into Cannes, Daniel and Kanitha organized the actors to go to Cannes for the red carpet—getting them tuxedos and haircuts, arranging travel. Daniel also helped with press for the film’s future Cambodia release. Around that time, Daniel also started helping Kavich on White Building, writing the treatment and script and applying to grants, labs, and workshops. The official moment when Daniel felt that he had a real position was when the film got into Busan Asian Project Market in October 2016, where Diamond Island also showing for its Asian premiere. Daniel and Danech went to Busan for the first time to see films; this trip was a very important moment for Danech to see the kinds of movies that were shown, such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark. This time period was also affirmation for Kavich and Davy that White Building was really going to happen, going to Asian Project Market and winning two awards.
From then on, Daniel was hired as a co-writer but also took on assistant and producer roles. Because of the small team and lack of resources, everyone takes on multiple roles: moving grant applications along, strengthening script quality. Daniel describes feeling lucky to be involved in such a project with close friends. As a cinephile, to suddenly be working in the film industry, going to Busan, and being introduced to friends of friends after having watched their films, has been an unbelievable experience, which he would not be able to do that if he were trying to get into industry from California. The process has not been intentional but more natural and intuitive, supporting friends where he could. Section 3: 0:04:50 - 0:09:52 (5:02)
A still from Diamond Island (Davy Chou, 2016; Cambodia/France). [source]
Diamond Island actors at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. [source]

4. Anti-Archive as collective.

Anti-Archive founded by Steve, Davy, and Kavich. The reason was partly administrative: to produce each of their feature films, they needed a company to be able to able to apply for World Cinema Fund and other film funding. The three friends continued to bring on others to be involved in the development and production stages. Anti-Archive works as a collective in that everyone depends on each other and their perspectives and makes do with ad hoc resources and opportunities. Section 4: 0:09:52 - 0:13:07 (3:14)

5. Expanding Anti-Archive.

Anti-Archive works through a team-centered decision-making process. Daniel gives the example of Echoes from Tomorrow, which was Davy’s idea but realized together. This is a way of expanding Anti-Archive—more films, more teams, and more perspectives—that happens in an intuitive way. For example, Danech and Daniel met by getting involved through Davy’s cineclub. Daniel describes Davy as like an older brother and his personality as a central ingredient in the process.  When Daniel opened Tini, he always felt that there would be a point when he would leave Cambodia, which is common for westerners working in the NGO world. In 2017, Daniel realized that he had a unique position within Anti-Archive, which was more important than whatever other original career trajectory he had planned. Section 5: 0:13:07 - 0:20:43 (7:36)
Above: Images from the set of Three Wheels (Kavich Neang, 2015; Cambodia/France) (Photos: Linda Saphan) [source]. Below: A still from the short film, Three Wheels  [source].

6. Anti-Archive and the role of the city.

Daniel discusses the role of the city of Phnom Penh in Anti-Archive’s films and the current film, which is the first to be about the whole city of Phnom Penh. As Daniel describes, Diamond Island was shot mostly on the island and was thus naturally contained; Kavich’s Three Wheels and White Building were both conceptualized as taking place in the White Building, a place that was accessible and that Kavich knew well. This is the first film in which they had to think outside of the space of the building, which presented an interesting challenge. Creating a fictional space liberated the way they conceptualize the film by thinking about the city at-large. Kavich sees documentary as a record of his memory and childhood, while fiction can be larger than that while encompassing the same feelings and memories.
Filming in the city comes with technical challenges, for example, getting controlled sound and permission from various authorities, which presents different levels of risk. Many of these aspects of production depend on the expertise of others. 
Daniel gives Kavich’s last short film, New Land Broken Road, as an example. Working with a firm deadline, the film was shot right before the national election, during which everything was locked down. They had to work their way through the permitting process, and in the end, much of the film was creatively shot in private spaces that looked public. Kavich and Kavitha, both born and raised in Phnom Penh, create films are about the city rather than tropes about the urban-rural divide. Section 6: 0:20:43 - 0:27:10 (6:26)
The White Building, where Kavich Neang grew up, was a modernist housing complex for middle- and lower-income Cambodians built in 1963. Following the 1975-79 evacuation, surviving residents returned to the building, which became a community of artists. Neang's documentary captures the everyday lives of residents, including his own family, prior to the building's demolition. It was torn down to make room for a casino complex. Read more about the structure at the White Building Archive, run by SA SA Art Projects and Big Stories Co. Image: National Archives of Cambodia and Charles Mayer Collection. 
A still from Last Night I Saw You Smiling (Kavich Neang, 2019; Cambodia). [source]

7. Currents Festival.

Daniel discusses the overlap between art and architecture and filmmaking and the Currents Festival, which focused on the theme of urbanism. The name was chosen because Phnom Penh is the meeting place of four rivers. Daniel chose Anti-Archive films as well as other Southeast Asian-focused films, sometimes stretching the theme. Throughout the curatorial process, Daniel drew on  networks and collective bubbles from Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. The festival was well-attended and exhibited films not easily watch by people in Phnom Penh. An upcoming rendition of the festival will be timed to the Bauhaus 100 anniversary in Jakarta, Phnom Penh, and Manila. Section 7: 0:27:10 - 0:33:54 (6:44)
The Phnom Penh Currents Art & Urban Festival. Program available here

8. Transnational connections.

Thailand and Korea are two of Anti-Archive’s most important connections in the region. Korea is important because of Busan, and Thailand is important for its technical resources in color and sound. At this time, Cambodia does not have all the necessary labs and resources. Daniel also talks about the influence of Apichatpong, the filmmaker who brought Anti-Archive together. Watching Tropical Malady at Davy’s house was one of the first times Daniel remembers engaging intellectually with Danech. Because Apichatpong is from a different country, Daniel describes that Danech, Davy, and Kavich have been able to make passing citations to his films without feeling stuck in his box. Daniel discusses Purin, as well as Thai distributors and Nontawat, a Thai filmmaker and collaborator. Davy was a co-producer of his first feature documentary, Boundary, about the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. Davy helped Nontawat get into the Preah Vihear Temple. Steve is now producing his first fiction project, Doi Boy, an Anti-Archive co-production. Section 8: 0:33:54 - 0:39:51 (5:56)
The Anti-Archive team at the Busan Film Festival’s Asian Project Market in 2016. Image: Sasha Don, Variety. [source]

9. Cineclub discussions.

Daniel discusses cineclub conversations about film, including conversations about the film Tropical Malady. Daniel describes the limits of the close reading style of analysis that he learned during undergrad; on the other hand, Kavich, and Danech to a lesser extent, would instead see a film and think about their emotional response and try to reach with their own filmmaking. The scriptwriting process with Kavich brings together both an emotive and a rational point of view. Section 9: 0:39:51 - 0:44:01 (4:10)

10. Local distribution and exhibition.

Daniel talks about the local exhibition and distribution landscape and Anti-Archive’s relationship to those circuits. Legend is the big local cinema chain, which plans to follow the Vietnamese model of expansion. The company makes agreements with real estate developers to build cineplexes in new gated communities. To succeed, the chain must be able to diversify their offerings and show different films in different cinemas, which is possible in Phnom Penh. The company sponsored Currents in a new cineplex in a mall near the riverside, a possible art house cinema. Section 10: 0:44:01 - 0:46:25 (2:24)
Legend Cinema has expanded rapidly in recent years, due to the increasing number of moviegoers in Phnom Penh. Cambodia's economic growth has risen faster than its regional neighbors, according to the Asian Development Bank; alongside this growth has been an increase in the number of cinemagoers, which rose from 25% to 30% in 2018. Challenges for the Cambodian exhibition circuit include the rising cost of property, due to foreign investment, as well as competition from Thai circuits. [source]

11. Alternative and art house circuits.

While Daniel hopes other companies will do the same as Legend, he also hopes that there is drive by local filmmakers to develop their own spaces outside of big companies, such as in Bangkok, which Daniel describes as ten or twenty years ahead. Daniel talks about the possibility of a repertory theater in Phnom Penh, where the only place exhibiting such films is the French Institute, which attracts an audience that is majority foreigner and not always interesting for local audiences. However, Daniel is not sure if there is enough interest for attendance at those events, citing difficulty even getting filmmakers to go to film events. Section 11: 0:46:25 - 0:49:15 (2:50)

12. The future of Anti-Archive.

Daniel wants to fill local theaters with local audiences and hopes that the films can spark conversation, even if they are not fully understood. Daniel talks about a potential tour of films in the provinces once productions settle. This would be an opportunity to see if audiences are falling asleep or leaving or talking, and it would be up to filmmakers to decide if films should be adjusted to Cambodian audiences. Daniel talks about new faces in Anti-Archive, whose films they would potentially produce in the future, and the name of Anti-Archive as a different way of framing attention to history. Section 12: 0:49:15 - 0:54:32 (5:16)