Cambodian director and producer Kulikar Sotho has swooped a Tokyo Film Festival award and opened the Cambodia International Film Festival with her recent film, The Last Reel. Writer Joanna Mayhew talks to Hanuman Films’ executive director about what it took to make the cut.

What is the film about?
It begins with a girl who runs away from home and lives in a cinema. She finds an old reel. The film is not completed, because the civil war took place, and so she decides to complete the film. During the process, she discovers [what] happened to her family, to the whole country. It’s about today’s society—the legacy we live with as an impact of war—and whether we move on or are stuck with it.

What is the core message?
For the new generation, it’s to understand the past. There is such a large percentage of the new generation who are so ignorant of our heritage. They’ve kind of lost who they are, so they start to copy outsiders. The message is understand your past, because Cambodia makes up many centuries, not the three years of genocide. We should understand the good and bad, in order to rise above the bad.

Why is the film important to you?
When I was young, I always wanted to know what happened to my father, to my family. We all knew there was this figure Pol Pot, but it was quite abstract. I couldn’t ask my mother because it’s not a breakfast subject. When the country started to open, there were filmmakers coming to do documentaries on the Khmer Rouge. I threw myself into working with them. I developed a desire to tell this story from a Cambodian point of view, but from my generation. When the script came, I remember my heart was racing as I read it. [It] was supposed to be directed by an American. I was always worried, because foreign crews are not the ones living with the legacy of it. The project fell through, and the writer suggested I be director.

Tell me about the recent award.
We were selected to the Tokyo International Film Festival, [which] was the world premiere, and received the [Spirit of Asia] award. I didn’t make the film for the award. But the fact that I received the award means I have done something right, something that touches people’s hearts. It’s an encouragement because it’s not just for me. In my speech, I dedicate it to my country. I am very proud that I have contributed to the pride of being Cambodian.

How have Cambodians responded?
The Last Reel opened the Cambodian Film Festival in December. [It] seemed to generate a lot of interest, and people were queuing to watch. It had been screened for Cambodians at the rough-cut stage. One student said to me that it gave him hope, and that word alone is everything to me.

What was it like being a first-time female director?
Cambodia is still a male-dominated society, and my central characters are male. Because I am a first-time director and a first-time female director, the combination was a challenge. But because I’ve been working as a line producer for many years, that gave me one credit. I also have an ability of relating with people, that was the second win. When we started reading the script, we related our personal stories to the script. Once we found common ground, it was easy to get my messages across.

Did your personal connection make directing difficult?
I worked on many documentaries; 80 percent [were] about the Khmer Rouge. I got to meet every level, from normal soldiers to Brother Number Two. There was a time I lost so much weight because I became so traumatised. The film is very personal to me on a deep level. I don’t know if there’s a word to justify how I felt. But I had the responsibility of looking at it as a director and not just my story. So I stepped back and looked at it as an overall picture.

Where is Cambodian filmmaking today, and where is it headed?
It’s very overwhelming in terms of the energy. Last year we had The Missing Picture nominated for best foreign picture, my film received the award, [and] we had short films recognised in the Busan festival. It’s booming, buzzing. I think it’s heading to the international stage. Cambodian filmmakers are very talented, but we need support in financing, guidance. The new filmmakers are very young, fresh, committed and driven. Now that they see Cambodian films are on the international stage, that is a drive, and that is the direction they will go.

What impact do you hope your work has?
Because my film is a Cambodian film and purely local financed, I’m hoping local filmmakers can see there is a different way of making films. Don’t make 20 films a year; make one good film a year, because a good film stays. I hope the award will help [them] understand that they too can tell their stories and be recognised. I am not the only Cambodian female filmmaker; we have a lot of others here. I don’t mean to set any path. I just enjoy making good films that inspire people.