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7 questions with Sithen Sum

7 questions with Sithen Sum

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A film lover since his teens, Sithen Sum is one of the faces behind the 2013 FilmCampKH. Photograph: Ruth Keber


Sithen Sum, 31, runs his own translation business by day, but by night he is an organiser of the 2013 FilmCampKH, where “film lovers and filmmakers meet”. The Cambodian camp is the brainchild of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer, a collective of young filmmakers who formed in 2009 under the guidance of French-Cambodian director Davy Chou. Four years ago, the group produced their own feature film, Twin Diamonds, and appeared in Chou’s cinema documentary Golden Slumbers, where they re-enacted famous scenes from the “Golden Age” of Cambodian film. This Saturday at Panasastra University, the camp will hold a day of workshops, debates and speakers, and announce the winners of their Southeast Asia-wide Chaktomouk Short Film Contest.

How did you come to be involved in FilmCampKH?

[In 2009] I attended three workshops co-ordinated by Davy Chou, where he first taught us basic film techniques. After the training, we decided to make a collectively produced film and put on an exhibition about old Cambodian movies. Since high school, I was looking for opportunities to learn film or work in film, but I couldn’t find any. After we made the film and organised the exhibition, we decided to form an official collective. The vision for our collective is a platform where potential filmmakers can showcase their talents. We want to create a place or an institution for them to learn about film.

What opportunities exist for aspiring filmmakers to learn about the craft?

It’s still a challenge. We can only attend short courses about film-related skills. At the moment, we’re still waiting for a film school, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I’m a more practical guy - I’ve met a lot of people who are making films but haven’t studied it.

Do you think documentary or feature films have a greater future in Cambodia?

In terms of market, I think documentary has larger opportunity or potential. But in terms of pictures, I prefer features. In Cambodia, many NGOs want to make promotional spots about their activities... but these are commission works - that’s why I prefer fiction.

I graduated from a French college [with] a bachelor degree, but I’ve been interested in film since high school. What I found out at high school is that Cambodian cinema was in decline; [I thought] I should do something. I did other jobs, but [cinema] was always the biggest thing for me.

Compared to [the film industry] we had, we have a long way to catch up. I don’t think we can make special effects in our current movies, but we can do documentaries.

If there’s enough material for good documentaries, and people are making them, why aren’t they making other genres like dramas?

Good scripts are important. I agree that making these [blockbuster movies] people earn easy money, but if they make dramas or other genres, they spend a lot more. In Cambodia, there is a tendency to [take a] copy-and-paste approach [to scripts]. What I understand is that some Cambodian people confuse a script with a novel... “Show more than tell” is my personal belief. Sometimes Cambodian actors are still inspired by soap-opera-style over-writing. It’s not very natural.

What’s the biggest challenge to those wanting to go into filmmaking?

The biggest challenge for young people is that they don't believe they can make films. We have a traditional belief that you have to have a lot of money to make film. You have to have a certain amount to produce film, but from my experience, if you keep waiting for these things to happen, you won’t make a single film. That’s why we as a collective have decided to come together to make films... We want to empower young people to believe they can do it.

Kon Khmer Koun Khmer is interested in the “Golden Age” of 1960s and ‘70s film – how do you learn about this era, when so many of the original films were lost?

I believe most of our parents tell us about these films at some point in our lives. My mother kept telling me how much she appreciated her favourite film stars. She remembered the songs of the films and felt nostalgic. [That made me] really want to see these films and learn from them, if I could. We can make some assumptions on what the movies before them were like.

What film industry might Cambodia emulate in the future – Korea? Hong Kong?

We may follow in the path of Vietnam. Because they went through a lot of ups and downs and they had a lot of diaspora who returned to make films. One of the films in our competition is Vietnamese and it’s by a student... I think we’ll take a longer time to catch up. Why? We get little support from the government.

Sometimes they support us, but it’s often in words alone – no materials, funding, no school. From what I know about Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, their [governments] really support the cause.

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