The 1960s were a golden age for Cambodian cinema, but the thriving industry was almost wiped out by the rise of Khmer Rouge. More than 30 years on from the fall of the brutal regime, writer Dara Saoyuthnea meets some up and coming talents who are reinvigorating the big screen.
Earlier this year, a nation held its breath as Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh represented the Kingdom at the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles.
Though The Missing Picture, his examination of life under the Khmer Rouge regime told through archival footage and clay figurines, narrowly missed out on the title of best foreign film, the fact he was there at all represented the growth of an industry that was almost wiped out three decades prior.
“Before the Khmer Rouge there were a lot of filmmakers. The Khmer Rouge destroyed everything,” says Cheap Sovichea, director of industry body the Cambodia Film Commission, which aims to both build human resources and attract foreign filmmakers to the Kingdom.
In the wake of the genocidal regime, which saw those in the movie industry perish alongside an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians, entertainment became a low priority. Yet over the years, as the Kingdom recovered, local filmmakers and directors have re-emerged, with key figures such as Rithy Panh, Chhay Bora and Davy Chou making waves internationally whilst examining the country’s past.
“Film is important in society in educating people on morality, ethics, culture and so on and so forth,” says Chhay Bora, whose acclaimed movie Lost Loves tells the history of the Khmer Rouge through one mother’s experience, as “children today might not know the exact tragedy at that time.”
As Cambodian cinema garners international attention, many are considering its future and how to better foster the next generation of Cambodian talent. More and more film-related events – including the annual FilmCamp, a session that attracts both experienced and young filmmakers – are pushing cinematic passion in the country.
Chhay Bora, who sees film as a tool that allows him to tell previously untold stories, lectures students on directing at the Department of Media and Communication (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. But he acknowledges that his contribution at DMC, where he teaches 27 students, and further informal advice provided to other youngsters cannot fulfill the larger need of those who want to study filmmaking countrywide.
“Some young people call me to meet and consult with me about a script or something related to film. Some discuss with me on Facebook. When I have new lessons, I can share with them. That’s all I can do,” he says, explaining that the country still has a low number of local filmmakers.
Inspiring young people are, however, still making an impact despite the current lack of a dedicated film school or a university providing a major in filmmaking in Cambodia – a development that many professionals say they would support.
“I see that some Cambodian youths now are trying to produce their short films, though they spend their own money and resources to do it. I really admire them,” says Sovichea, who believes that the film industry will develop further alongside political stability, a good standard of living and education.
Earlier this year, Rice, a seven-minute short produced by 25-year-old Sothea Ines, won first place award at Tropfest South East Asia – the world’s largest short film festival. As the short’s writer, director and producer, the graduate has learnt that filmmaking is a tough job that requires both passion and creativity. She now plans to use her winnings to set up a film fund for Cambodians.
“I think this will encourage young filmmakers to tell stories they want to express,” she says.
Another youth garnering popular appeal is Ouch Makara, whose short Senior Love tells the story of a quirky romance. The 24-year-old, who has worked in film since 2006, hopes to step up to feature films later in his career. “You cannot do it alone, but you need a team of people who have the same vision as you,” he says.
The CFC is also providing support to those hoping to enter the film industry. Alongside providing professional training, it can provide editing space and camera and recording devices. But challenges still remain. Sovichea suggests that local television stations could promote local films, while Chhay Bora would like to see more investment in the local projects – a move that could give more opportunities to young creatives.
“Without investors, we need to wait until foreign film projects come and then [the foreign filmmakers] will bring their producer and director, and they hire our Cambodian to control lights or equipment,” he explains.
The professional also encourages Cambodian youth to seek opportunities to make films by themselves, so that one day the local film industry will be able to compete with neighboring countries. “We cannot wait for opportunity, but we have to seek opportunity,” he adds.
Ones to Watch
Directed by Chhay Bora, Lost Loves tells the story of mother Leav Sila during the Khmer Rouge regime. Staring Kauv Sotheary, Chhay Bora’s wife and one of Leav Sila’s two surviving children, it gives a brutal yet captivating insight into Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
This award-winning short film explores a day in a children’s camp in a rural area during the Khmer Rouge regime. Five young boys decide to have a “party” with rice from the camp store, but the group is spotted by a regime cadet. The camp commander sends them to be “re-educated” as an example to the rest of the boys.
The short Cambodian film tells the confusing love story between a young woman and an older man. One day, the girl picks up a book and finds a picture of a handsome man, her senior, inside. A day later, she finds a letter on a tree asking if somebody picked up the book. They both start a conversation by sticking letter on trees, but all is not as it seems.
Filmmaker Davy Chou examines the history of Cambodia’s golden age of cinema in this fascinating documentary, with interviews with veteran figures from the industry’s past.