Is Chhay Bora a feminist? Watching his latest feature film, 3.50, you might think so. The film is a revealing and honest take on the sex industry in Cambodia. At the centre of a group of trafficked girls in Phnom Penh is Jora, a fresh-faced young woman from the provinces. Rebecca, the American journalist investigating her whereabouts is a single mother who faces endless comments about how she should be focusing on her son, not her work.
Speaking at his Phnom Penh office earlier this week, Bora explained: “I can see that a lot of activists against human trafficking today are female. They play a more important role in society than men because they want to help their sex, they want to find justice for other women.
“In Cambodia, women depend on their husbands,” he continued. “When husbands beat their wives, women keep quiet because they think they have no choice. I want to say to girls, ‘you have a choice’.”
The film exposes the horrors faced by girls who are trafficked; its title alludes to, among other things, the commodification of human beings when their worth is discussed and disputed and they are ultimately used for monetal gain.
Despite, or perhaps because, of its bold statements, Bora’s film may never make it to the screen in this country. The film, the first co-production between writers, directors and producers in Cambodia and Singapore, where it made its premiere last week, has so far failed to get past government censors here. Bora planned to screen the premiere this past week only for the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture to tell him that they will not approve the licence until he re-edits the film.
For Bora, whose 2010 film Lost Loves was shortlisted for the Oscars, lack of freedom of expression is the biggest challenge facing filmmakers in the country. Sitting in his office in the riverside area – near where the majority of the film is shot – he criticised what he called a national film industry that values the genres of horror and comedy over films that carry a social message.
“To pick up educational topics like human trafficking is a big risk for investment. People like to invest in horror films and comedies, because they make faster money. They say that zombie films will make better money, and me choosing this topic is high risk – but filmmakers have duties and responsibilities within society,” he said.
As long as the government refuses to approve licences for such “high risk” productions, said the film director, reluctance to fund such projects will remain, because investors will know that they won’t attract the audiences needed for revenue.
According to Bora, although the initial script was approved when he applied to shoot the film in Phnom Penh, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has objected to several elements. These, he said, include: a shot that shows the Prime Minister’s office in the background, a scene in which a taxi driver throws a cigarette out of the window (“they said it makes Cambodia not look good”) and, in terms of the plot, when a friend of Jora’s childhood sweetheart sleeps with Jora in the brothel.
The ministry told him it wanted him to cut other shots too, he said, but it has not yet specified which. He said: “I don’t know, they didn’t give me the specific scenes – they just highlighted a few. I need to receive the official letter telling me what I have to cut.”
Were the government to tell him explicitly which scenes it wanted out of the picture, would Bora respect its wishes? For the integrity of film, Bora said he would refuse: “I hope they tell me the actual scenes that they want me to cut, but I cannot follow them 100 per cent. I don’t really want to cut because it will destroy the whole story.”
He continued: “If someone asks you to cut and you cut, where is your freedom? Are you making the film for them, or are you making it for yourself or are you making it for the people? I have to stand strong for my position – I have to defend my scenes and why I put them in the movie.”
Although the government has expressed particular grievances over certain shots, it is not the first time that films depicting sex trafficking in Cambodia have come up against the censors. A source who asked to be kept anonymous said she tried to organise screenings of a documentary on the same topic, in both private and public venues under government authority, only to be turned away.
Kavich Neang, director of Where I Go, a film about a young man born in Cambodia’s UNTAC period that was released earlier this year, said that although he hasn’t experienced censorship of his own films, filmmakers need to support one another in allowing their voices to be heard.
He said: “I am worried as I am in the next generation of this era of filmmakers. We need inspiration and support from each other. I think it’s very difficult for filmmakers and artists to suppress their ideas or expression in films. Film is not only about entertainment – the most important thing is to share and reflect on the current society.”
That’s certainly how Bora sees himself, if 3.50 is anything to go by. Rebecca, the film’s protagonist, is not too different from the filmmaker: dedicated to exposing society’s ills and passionate about social justice. She makes films that people don’t want her to, though they are documentaries. Bora criticised the characters that tell her that she shouldn’t spend so much time on her work that her role is at home taking care of her son: “It’s so selfish. The characters say, ‘You should look after your boy, you should take care of your family’. But as a human, you have social responsibilities. Even if this isn’t happening in your family, these are also your people, you’re a human being.”
Social responsibility matters to Bora’s characters partly because their lives are all interlinked in some way. Everything they do has repercussions on the others: from Sopheap, Jora’s childhood sweetheart, visiting the brothel for personal use, to the seemingly insignificant fact that Rebecca never meets her nanny’s husband. In many of these cases, the characters don’t have much of a choice. The sex industry, Bora is saying, implicates everyone, though that doesn’t condemn these people for life.
The film is just as concerned with the ambiguities of the human character, why people do the things they do and their capacity to repent. Two of the employees of Jora’s pimp, for example, decide to risk everything for the girls they helped to enslave.
In Bora’s world, nobody is exempt from their responsibilities and the subtleties of the sex trade abound. Bora’s pimp, for instance, is a woman, Vanna. Tall and thin, with her dark hair scraped back to reveal a cruel, angular face, she resembles a Cambodian Cruella De Ville, in each scene accompanied by a glass of red wine and a cigarette. Bora said: “There are more women playing the role of pimp here. Both men and women are involved in this dirty business here, but actually there are more females in the business.”
Bora said that in a country like Cambodia in particular, many people do not have a choice about what they do. He said: “When you have to earn money it’s very hard to feed your family. If you earn less than $200 for three members of the family it’s very hard to live, and everything is expensive. Some people switch work, switch responsibility from something good to something bad. Tuk-tuk drivers are supposed to drive customers from place to place, but when they have to earn more money they take them to somewhere for entertainment and then they get commission . . . It’s easy money, and slowly they fall into dirty work.”
Bora offered the real-life example of a scene he witnessed in Phnom Penh not long ago: crowds of people beating and torturing a thief believed to have been stealing jewellery. This mob attitude, he said, is sadly all too common in Cambodia.
He said: “You can’t expect that people will do bad things for their whole life – they have to have a chance to change.”
For Bora, film is the perfect medium through which to highlight their struggles, as messy as they are. He said: “I’m a filmmaker. I have a duty and responsibility to tell people what is happening in society, to bring the hidden story of this dirty society to the screen and to educate people. All of us have to stand up and help our nation, help our people.”
The Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture could not be reached for comment as of press time.