Vintage cinema is set to be screened throughout Phnom Penh this month as part of Memory!, an international film heritage festival. Ellie Dyer reports.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s rich cinematic history lay in tatters. Of an estimated 350 films made during the 1960s and 1970s golden era of film — when King Father Norodom Sihanouk was among those producing big-screen extravaganzas — only around 10 percent are thought to have been saved.

Yet storytelling is resilient. Despite years of incredible hardship, many Cambodians were still drawn to the tales told on the silver screen. In the wake of the regime, people read photoroman — books containing film stills or drawings portraying the storylines of popular productions, accompanied
by text.

In the modern day, the movie business is still very much alive, with a new generation of filmmakers winning critical acclaim on the international scene. Cambodian documentary A River Changes Course recently won the World Cinema Grand Jury prize at the 2013 Sundance film festival.

Though it is clear cinema has a rich future, many believe that preserving the past is equally important for society. This concept led to the creation of Memory!, an international heritage film festival being held in Phnom Penh from Jun. 1 to 9.

“Films are in danger everywhere in the world if they are not well preserved — notably with humidity and heat control — and not only for political reasons. Over 90 percent of films made before 1929 are lost forever and half of all American films made before 1950,” says Séverine Wemaere, managing director of French group Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage.

The non-profit organisation is helping to arrange Memory! — co-organised by Phnom Penh’s Bophana Centre with support from the Cambodia Film Commission — after it approached filmmaker Rithy Panh, creator of S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, with the concept.

“All films should be looked after, no matter minor or major works, fiction or documentaries, newsreels or rushes. This memory is our heritage and future generations should be able to access this memory,” says Wemaere.

The festival will run free screenings of more than 30 vintage productions, themed around the concept of dance and sourced from archives worldwide, at Chaktomuk Theatre and the Bophana Centre.

Titles include Norodom Sihanouk classics Apsara and Crepuscule and Davy Chou’s exploration of Cambodia’s cinematic heritage in Golden Slumbers. Legendary films including Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, Walt Disney’s Fantasia and George Méliès seminal 1902 work, A Trip to the Moon, will also be shown.

Many productions are being presented in their original 35mm format, with specialist apparatus flown in from France to accommodate the big reels. A window had to be removed from the projection box at the riverside theatre in order to fit the equipment, which will remain in Cambodia after the festival.

“It was made for this format, so visually speaking it should be really enjoyable,” says Bophana’s cultural events assistant, Marie-Josée Blanchard.

An exhibition called Shadows to Silver Screen: A History of Cinema in Cambodia hosted by the Bophana Centre is set to explore the Kingdom’s film past — from shadow puppetry, to the golden age of cinema, propaganda under the Khmer Rouge and the photoroman strips. Colourful reproductions of old film posters will also be displayed at the Chaktomuk Theatre.

Organisers hope that a younger generation will be inspired by the festival, with youngsters invited to join the screenings, and the band Dengue Fever set to rock the capital at Koh Pich on Jun. 5.

“We are putting a special focus on the younger generations,” says Blanchard. “We want them to appreciate and enjoy heritage films as much as they would for contemporary blockbusters, for them to see all the richness of these classics and to learn from them.”

Free forums on restoration are also set to spur knowledge of the techniques involved in preserving movies — a complicated process that can take more than a year, depending on the situation and the damage.

“It consists of bringing back to life a well-known or forgotten work without betraying the author’s wishes. It is a difficult yet fascinating exercise, but most of all, a lesson in humility,” explains Wemaere. “There is no such film as an old film.”

For more information, visit: memoryfilmfestival.org.