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Famed Khmer director talks about illustrious career

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Poan Phoung Bopha at her office. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's only female director Poan Phoung Bopha is also one of its most successful – and has experienced many dramas in her own life. From a young girl whose childhood was dominated by war, she became a teenager who shouldered all the family burdens but eventuaqlly rose to a dynamic career in film producing and directing.

All of these life experiences have made her the successful woman and film director she is today.

Phoung Bopha was born in November, 1955, in Svay Rean province. She is the oldest daughter of a family of eight children, a typically sized family of that era. “That was the result of the unavailability of contraception,” she jokes when 7Days spoke to her at her offices this week.

Phoung Bopha’s father was a teacher at her village, and it was he who encouraged her to read as mush as she could. She was a bookworm by the age of seven and would read as many classics she could find.

“I was even spanked by my parents for becoming addicted to reading,” she recalled. “They worried in case I was reading inappropriate books for a girl.”

The role of being the oldest daughter in the family mneant she missed out on a true childhood, but she never once thought of giving up her studies or love of reading. She continued her education to the end of high school which was the top level of schooling available in the country during that time.

It was during those years the director of hit films including 25 Year Old Girl and its current sequel Fools In Love developed a talent for writing essays.

“Reading and writing goes hand in hands - they compliment each other,” she explains.

But the dream of continuing her studies was destroyed when the country fell into chaos during the late 1960s period and Phoung Bophas family became nomads. Then in 1971, at 16, she was forced into an arranged marriage by her parents. “It was another loss (of her teen years) in my overall life,” she says with great honesty.

“I was made to skip my teenage years and become an adult.”

Phoung Bopha was pregnant with her first child a year later, but at the same time she managed to start writing her first novel titled Cheam Rut Rouk Cheam or Blood Goes for Blood in English.

The culture back then was hostile to such a work and she found it hard for her book to be published. But with some financial support from her husband, she published the novel by herself.

“Not many people gave me help in publishing my novel,’’ she says. “Even a senior writer whom I went to for advice refused to edit my work.” she said.

In 1978, Phoung Bopha’s family escaped to Veitnam for one year where she learnt Vietnamese – but lost her husband, father and a sibling during the Khmer Rouge period. Phoung Bopha was again the only bread winner in the family. But when she returned home, she was hired by the Ministry of Telecommunications and sent back to Vietnam where she studied Political Science.

There she was able read world-wide known classic novels translated from English to Vietnamese.

“Funnily enough, with my limited Vietnamese language, I could understand the content of the novels,” she added. “And foreign literature gave me more ideas to create my own films.”

In 1989, Phoung Bopha re-married and produced and directed her first film. She said there were major challenges. “I had never received training in filmmaking or worked in that field before,” she explained.

Her first film was not a great success and to make the ends meet she worked as a reporter for Raksmey Kampuchea Daily newspaper from 1993 to 1998.

“I had no idea about the rules of journalism but I wrote articles in a way that my readers could understand the truth,” she said.

From 1997 to 2003, Poan was a co-director of Women’s Media Center (WMC) where she was responsible for media campaigns on various issues such as domestic violence, discrimination against women, contraception, and even had a run at entering politics.

“Working at WMC broadened my knowledge in team work and collective decision,” she says. “I learnt to work with others to brainstorm ideas to reach a final decision. Before I developed my own set of opinions, I was like a frog in a well.”

“It was quite a challenging a job to get our various messages out.”

After receiving recognition for her various media campaigns, Phoung Bopha swayed her interest back into making big-screen films. In 2003, the first Cambodian film that had been made in years - called Mother’s Love - was released and drew huge crowds at local cinemas.

“That film [Mother’s Love] featured my own experience in life and was a big influence on the mind-set of young Cambodians at the time,” said. “It created my signature in making films depicting social issues in contemporary Cambodian society, and the real life lessons to be learnt.”

To gain more popularity, Phoung Bopha has also tried different genres in her 21-film career. In 2004, the romantic comedy The Good Husband was another hit.

Asked why she decided to focus on gender issues in the film, Phoung Bopha explained: “When I was working at WMC, I was sent to study abroad on various topics and gender equality was one of them. My intention in creating films is to encourage self-realisation about problems that for too long have been taken for granted.”

Since 2004 Phoung Bopha has produced a number of soap operas for Rock Productions of CTN, plus other big-screen films including Who Am I, Love for Auction, and 25 Year Old Girl - which still airs on TV after long after finished its cinema run. The sequel Fools in Love is set to match its success.

“Producing as film is like cooking a meal to meet the eaters’ appetite,” she explained, “It requires me to bring in new perspective and that is why in my latest film [Fools in Love] I presented more than just romance or comedy, but suspense, thriller and an investigative plot.”

Despites success, there have been criticisms but they have not dented her passion. “It’s not that we [filmmakers] intend to offend anyone personally in the society,” she stated, “It’s just finger-pointing at societal holes we should all fill in with constructive actions.”

Finally, she says: ”I put my heart and soul into my career because I believe Cambodians too are nationalists. We support what is ours - Cambodian films among them.”

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