Cambodia’s film industry, long hindered by the past, is springing into action, and featues, documentaries and short films from local artists are steadily gaining recognition. Writer Joanna Mayhew captures the scene. Photography by Charles Fox.

During a low-key forum at Cambodia International Film Festival in December, a petit and elegant figure, wearing a simple black dress, floated up to the stage in the capital’s historic Chaktomuk Theatre. Looking content and at ease, she settled into a plush chair, and began posing questions to several of the country’s filmmakers.

In a way, her presence represented a milestone for Cambodia’s film industry, as the festival welcomed one of the world’s most famous Hollywood stars: Angelina Jolie Pitt. The actress, director and humanitarian, who served as president of the festival’s honorary committee, was at the time directing First They Killed My Father, an adaptation of Loung Ung’s Khmer Rouge memoir, to be released on Netflix this year.

But what her co-presenters symbolised is perhaps more striking.  Surrounding the actress was Cambodia’s internationally renowned and Oscar-nominated filmmaker and producer, Rithy Panh, as well as two young emerging filmmakers: the home-grown talent and pillars of the film industry, who are gradually coming into focus.

Cambodias film industryReeling from the Past
Cinema in Cambodia has suffered a turbulent history, as the country went from the golden age of films in the 1960s headlong into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, under which entertainment and arts were dismantled. In the 1980s and 1990s, the industry started making a gradual, slow comeback, led in part by French-trained powerhouse Panh, who escaped the country after living under Pol Pot’s rule. Foreign films highlighting the country, such as The Killing Fields, Tomb Raider (the first film to be shot here following the Vietnam War, Pol Pot era and civil war) and City of Ghosts, helped boost these efforts.

In the more than 15 years since Jolie Pitt first came to the country to star in Tomb Raider, the industry has taken major steps forward. “Cambodia has changed so much, in a way that makes me very excited for the future of filmmaking in Cambodia,” the Hollywood icon said on stage.

Previously branded by its unique horror-comedy genre, the industry is diversifying, with movies now running the gamut from action flicks and comedies, to thrillers and documentaries. “The current film industry here is very buoyant,” says screenwriter Michael Hodgson. “There are lots of productions going on with different genres being explored, which can only be a good thing for the movie business.” Director Polen Ly, who also sat alongside Jolie Pitt at the festival, adds, “It’s a Cambodian renaissance.”

While small, the industry is made up of several sub-groups, according to freelance director Jimmy Henderson. There is the local slapstick horror market, which efficiently churns out lower-budget films, the high-budget international market, for production such as First They Killed My Father, an emerging high-quality local market producing dramas and comedies, and an independent art house or underground scene. The industry is also expanding to include more players, with a mix of local, foreign and diaspora filmmakers involved.

In recent years, the country has secured some big wins, most notably in Panh’s The Missing Picture being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards – becoming the first Cambodian film to make the final cut. Panh also made history in 1995 when his docudrama Rice People was the first Cambodian film to be submitted for an Oscar. Cambodian director and producer Kulikar Sotho’s The Last Reel snagged a prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and was put forward for this year’s Oscars, though it did not make the short list, and Chhay Bora’s Lost Loves was entered for the 85th Academy Awards. “These are great achievements, as it shows to other countries that Cambodia’s film industry is on the rise,” says Loy Te, producer for local production house Kongchak Pictures.

Films also have a local platform through the growing number of festivals in the Kingdom: the Cambodia International Film Festival saw its sixth iteration last year; the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival has been running since 2012; and the first annual Phnom Penh Youth Film Festival will launch at the end of this month to “plant seeds to grow the film industry,” according to festival organiser Rich Herbeck.

Cambodias film industryStarting Short
Independent short films are currently one of the most exciting cinematic areas in the country, with artists pushing creative boundaries – and being well recognised for their efforts. In the region’s two most recent Tropfest South East Asia festivals, Cambodians have taken top honours. For his work on Colourful Knots, Ly swooped the first prize in 2015, as well as second prize for Duetto in 2014, when fellow Cambodian Sothea Ines won for her short film, Rice. Chap Somchanrith also placed third last year with A Fistful of Pebbles.

“We have a lot of new stories to tell,” says Ly, of the unexpected domination by the Kingdom. “Those stories have been hidden for a long time.”

From Kandal province, the 26-year-old is emblematic of the new generation of filmmakers. Self-taught, he started making short films just a few years ago while in medical school – after being surprised to discover the genre even existed – using a simple Canon Powershot camera. Inspired by French, Russian and other international cinematic influences, he left school and has since directed dramas and experimental movies, making nuanced films from the simplest of subjects. “Even the small things – a drop of water – can inspire you to make great stories,” he says.

According to Ly, the award-winning Duetto was made on a slender $100 budget. “It’s a good lesson for other filmmakers. You don’t need a big budget to make films.” He argues that this lack of equipment and finances even furthered creativity.

These offerings, though, are not yet popular among the general population. “Cambodia is still developing, so people are not so interested in watching independent films,” says Ly. “But I think we learn the most from [the] complex.”

While less recognised internationally, feature films are also getting better, breaking from the typical genre and using improved equipment, post-production and casts. Recent large-scale productions include Cambodian zombie apocalypse film Run, martial arts revenge movie Hanuman and war thriller Before the Fall. Soon-to-be released Poppy Goes to Hollywood is an upbeat, musical profile of the LGBT community centred on a ladyboy, and upcoming Jailbreak is a stunt-action flick.

“It’s good to see more content being put together,” says producer Theavin Uk of 802AD Productions, adding comedy Kaob Pich to the list of game changers. “The industry is gaining interest within the younger generation.”

For Italian director Henderson, who wrote and directed Hanuman, the main goal is to create Khmer films that appeal both within and outside of Cambodia, [though] he added [this is tough] to achieve. “I’m trying to find the balance,” he says. “That’s the holy grail of film here.” Hanuman is partially there: the over-the-top violence appeals to Cambodians, while Westerners will find the same portrayal humorous, he says.

For filmmakers, both short and feature films also provide an opportunity to send a message. “I had this realisation that it’s not only about the art of making film; it helps me communicate with people,” says Ly, who made a documentary to raise awareness about and accurately portray Cambodia’s LGBT community.

“It’s finding an alternative to tell a story without being too obvious about what you’re trying to say,” adds Henderson, who is soon-to-release Forest Whisperers, an allegorical fantasy drama and horror flick about an oppressed society. 

Movies also offer a chance to showcase Cambodia’s positive aspects, such as the generosity represented in Ly’s winning Colourful Knots, rather than portrayals of genocide and the sex trade.

Cambodias film industryFilming in Progress
Factors for this recent rise vary, but a prominent one is access to technology. The switch to digital cameras has made making films easier and cheaper, including the option to shoot video from a smartphone. And the internet has meant that Cambodians without access to formal training institutions can teach themselves about everything from sound engineering to directing, according to Henderson.

“Due to historical events, Cambodian audiences missed out on films that others had seen,” adds Hodgson, who noticed a lack of film literacy when he first taught a screenwriting course in 2007. Since then, access to Facebook and YouTube has allowed for the quick spread of information from differing viewpoints and access to international films, which has increased the diversity of filmmaking.

YouTube also allows for Cambodian directors to get their short films seen on a wide scale, or even their trailers: Hanuman’s teaser currently has close to 500,000 views.

Another major impetus is the advent of theatres in country, according to Te. “Everyone was excited about being able to catch the latest superhero movies on the big screen. But for filmmakers it meant much more,” he says. Before cinemas, filmmakers had limited ways to make a return on investment. Now, with Legend, Major Cineplex and others joining the scene, along with distribution companies, such as Westec Media, producers now have the potential to earn money from ticket sales and be protected by piracy, says Te.

But challenges remain plentiful in the nascent arena. Financing is still hard to come by for many filmmakers, as well as a profit. Box office returns vary between $20,000 and, for the very successful, $120,000, but with cuts to the cinema and investors, it remains difficult to land solidly in the black, says Henderson. “The goal is to make the money back, but without compromising what I like to do,” he adds.

Post-production can also be a hurdle, with director Sotho choosing to complete the process overseas, though outlets like ithinkasia are slowly changing this.

Finding talent too can be challenging for directors. “Most of our actors tend to be over-acting,” says Sotho, who worked closely with her crew to develop their skills.

Part of the reason for this is a lack of formal training, according to Te, as well as few mentors. Short workshops are now being offered, but institutions specialising in film will help equip prospective actors and filmmakers.

There is also a gender gap in films, with males dominating the industry across the board, with the exception of independent offerings. Sotho felt this keenly while working as a first-time female director for The Last Reel. “It was definitely a challenge working with a male crew and cast, because it is a male-dominated society where male opinions are very highly regarded,” she says. “Female opinion has to always have a second thought, and that’s what I felt with them.” Speaking alongside Jolie Pitt, female documentarian Ngoeum Phally said, “I want to change this stereotype.”

Future Takes
Henderson predicts that within a few years, between 10 and 20 high-quality films will be made yearly. “It’s not there yet, but it’s the right time to make movies here,” he says. Adds Hodgson, “I can only see the local industry developing more and getting better.”

Despite low costs and the wide freedom given to international filmmakers, Cambodia is still largely unknown as a filming destination. Industry players hope this will change, in part by promotion from the government. As big-budget movies enter, they can help create employment – with Jolie Pitt’s film reported to be temporarily employing more than 500 Cambodians – as well as develop skills. This is a sentiment that is echoed by Lord David Puttnam, producer of The Killing Fields, which was released in 1984. “When we filmed The Killing Fields, we used as many Cambodians as possible,” he recalls. “We created a kind of mini industry, and many of the people we worked with continue to work in the film industry today. If you have the time to invest in teaching locals the skills, this can have a dramatic impact on local business.”

Though some local filmmakers have pushed back against foreign involvement and large-scale films, such as First They Killed My Father, most see this collaboration as the only way to truly propel the industry forward. “It’s a good thing to start with, because we have somebody to learn from,” says Ly.

Back at the festival, Jolie Pitt added, “This film will show people… what Cambodian filmmaking can be. We’re very excited to be able to show what we can do together.”