As Cambodia’s film industry continues to grow, editor Marissa Carruthers catches up with one of the men who is steering it in the right direction.

Destiny dealt her hand when Sok Visal entered the world. “My mum said I was born into theatre,” the 45-year-old film director says. “She was watching a movie when her waters broke and then gave birth to me.”

Having left Cambodia for France in 1975, the father-of-three’s passion for film was fuelled when he watched his first two public screening of films at the age of six.

“I went to the cinema to watch the original 1933 King Kong and later an open-air screening of a Cambodian horror film from the 1960s. They’re something I’ll never forget; I was so scared. From then on, I wanted to be a film director.”

Despite his dreams, Sok struggled with his studies and failed to make the grades for art school. He dabbled with the urban scene, taking up graffiti and hip hop, at the end of the 1980s, before drifting in and out of a string of menial jobs.

In 1993, he decided to return to his homeland to start his life again.

After reconnecting with his artistic roots, teaching himself graphic design, and becoming involved with hip hop and music-making and getting married, Sok was offered a job with an advertising agency, where he worked as both art and creative director. It was here that he was able to hone his self-taught skills, directing and shooting TV commercials.

In 2005, he started a side project founding KlapYaHandz, Cambodia’s first independent and Khmer hip hop music label. “I bought a camera and started shooting music videos,” he says.

Four years later he quit his job at the advertising agency to follow his lifelong dream and launch his own production company, 391 Films. After a few years of making music videos and TV commercials, Sok sat down with some pals to pen his first feature film script, Kroab Pich, or Gems on the Run.

Last year, Sok decided to focus on feature films, launching his company 802AD, which produced and directed cinema hit Poppy Goes to Hollywood and co-directed and line produced In the Life of Music, slated for release in March.

“Doing my first feature film was so exciting,” he says. “It was finally a dream come true. It was tough but it didn’t feel like hard work. I was working 17 to 18 hours a day, with little sleep, it was non-stop and crazy but it was an incredible experience and I was proud.”

Inspired by the directors that rocked the 1970s and 80s, such as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott – “the ideas that come from that era are so original,” he says – Sok is now helping nurture the next generation of movie-makers.

“The feature film industry in Cambodia is definitely growing,” he says, adding it has a long way to go before catching up with Thailand, which currently dominates the Southeast Asia film scene with its access to technology, film studios and prestigious film schools. “Cambodia will reach that level eventually, I’m just not sure when.”

Evidence of Cambodia’s progress can be seen in the recent surge of local entries to international film festivals. The seventh Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF), which runs from Dec. 2 to 7 and of which Sok is the ambassador for Cambodia, has three submissions from the country: Before the Fall, Cambodian Son and Diamond Island. Poppy Goes to Hollywood will feature in the 2018 edition.

This month, Phnom Penh International Film Festival (Nov. 21 to 30) and the Japanese Film Festival (Nov. 5 to 9) take over Phnom Penh, with the prestigious Cambodia International Film Festival pushed back from its usual December spot to January (at the time of print).

The annual FLY event will also take place in Cambodia this month, with Sok heading a group of 18 budding filmmakers from across ASEAN during two weeks of workshops. “This is strange for me because I was never formally taught in school,” he says. “I don’t know all the theory but I can hopefully offer a different perspective.”

While Cambodia has a long way to go before planting itself on the map as a movie-making hub – currently the only profitable films remaining horror and slapstick comedy and there is a lack of creativity when it comes to original scripts – Sok says it is headed in the right direction.

“Shooting films and editing is much easier now,” he says. “You can learn on the internet, technology is cheaper and you can shoot and edit on your smartphone; it’s much more accessible. We are definitely going the right way.”