Meta House founder Nicolaus Mesterharm chats with 7Days about documenting transitions in Cambodia and the role artists can play in changing perceptions about the Kingdom.
One change over the last decade is that in the evening city parks are now full of people doing aerobics and playing badminton. What other signs of transition strike you since you arrived here a decade ago?
Cambodians nowadays are more fashionable. What is also striking are all these youngsters with iPads and iPhones. There’s a car dealer selling Ferraris opposite Meta House where there once was a big inner-city slum community (Dey Krahom).
There’s also a generational divide that some say could spark rapid change. Do you get a sense of this from your work with young filmmakers?
Most of the young filmmakers we work with come from the urban middle class. They don’t live anymore “like frogs in a well” (Cambodian proverb). They understand how things work in neighbouring countries and the outside world. They are (mostly) more curious then their parents.
Meta House screens a lot of films from students, but there are few other outlets for them. What can be done to change this?
For the most part, Cambodian audiences don’t like docus. They think they’re boring. TV stations want to sell ad time. This is why – like in the West – entertainment formats are preferred. Young filmmakers must learn to produce content-based films, which are also entertaining to change viewers’ perception.
Cambodian visual art is getting plenty of attention lately; do you expect this to increase?
International art dealers and collectors are always looking for something new and exotic. For the first time a Cambodian artist (Pich Sopheap) is going to exhibit at DOCUMENTA in Germany this year. This might trigger even more interest., but only the quality of Cambodian contemporary artworks will determine if this interest is sustainable.
What shifts have you noticed in visual arts in terms of technique, subject and confidence?
Professional Cambodian artists were always good in terms of technique. They were weak in terms of concepts and messages when we started Meta in 2007. Members of the new generation are starting to express their feelings, thoughts and perceptions of sometimes pressing issues. However, self-censorship is an issue that most of them must learn to overcome.
The narrative about Cambodia in industrialised nations seems to lag reality more than it does for many other developing countries. What role can artists play in updating Cambodia’s narrative?
The outside world perceives Cambodia still as a war-torn country, landmine-infested, unsafe, poor. This is due to negative media reports, mostly focusing on Khmer Rouge, trafficking etc. We encourage young colleagues to update the (foreign) audience about the country’s recent development.
Are you noticing a shift in subject and technique in Cambodian documentaries? If so, where is it leading?
When we started Meta there were almost no Cambodian documentaries, done by Cambodians (except Rithy Panh). Most films were shot by foreigners (such as me!). The last few years have seen the emergence of small docu scene (partly under the Meta House umbrella). Nowadays young filmmakers must find their own styles. They must find subjects, which are not NGO-related (coz this is the sector, which produces most of the local docus). They must learn that docus don’t always need to deal with big issues such as climate change or safe access to water. Sometimes small daily life stories from the neighborhood also make a great film and will tell the audience about the realities in this country today.