From local independent productions to Hollywood blockbusters, all films screened legally in the Kingdom are subject to government censorship. But what are the boundaries?
While Rithy Panh will be the first Cambodian director to walk down the Oscars’ red carpet next month, many filmmakers at home are faced with a stickier path: through a good deal of red tape. Some directors report no problems while others have had their releases delayed indefinitely, but one thing is for certain: no film can be shown in Cambodia’s cinemas unless the government says so.
Under Cambodian law, every feature film released in the Kingdom must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art’s film censorship board. Such scrutiny is normal in the region, with every ASEAN state exercising direct film censorship to some degree, while government censorship in Western nations is usually only reserved for cases of extreme “obscenity”, such as depictions of pedophilia, bestiality or real-life violence.
For local productions in Cambodia, scripts must also be submitted prior to filming. If the film is rejected at either stage, it cannot be legally screened in Cambodia. Cambodian film censors have most recently held up the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo Dicaprio, which contains graphic sex scenes, drug use and more than 500 uses of the word f***.
But filmmaker Chhay Bora, who directed the yet-to-be released 3.50, said that the censorship board has never explained to him their grounds for evaluating movies.
“It’s like walking in the jungle with no road map to follow,” said Bora, whose film on sex trafficking was supposed to be released last October but never received final approval. Although his script was approved, Bora said that the censorship board has failed to reach a verdict on the final version. No specific cuts have been ordered by the ministry, he said, but feedback he received suggested that censorship board members were concerned about the movie’s heavy social commentary.
“The Ministry of Culture film department said they didn’t ban the film, but they didn’t grant the licence yet,” said Bora, adding that although the film’s dialogue did not seem to cause controversy, the censorship board expressed concern over “not less than 10” shots. Some of the criticism, Bora said, was over shots that the board claimed represented Cambodia in a bad light, such as a taxi driver throwing a cigarette out the window and a scene within the impoverished “White Building” community on Sothearos Boulevard.
Bora also said that other scenes were too political for the censors’ comfort, such as a shot of a character walking down a dusty road with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office visible in the background.
But it is not just edgy, socially provocative films that are sent to the censors. Sok Visal, whose debut feature film Gems on the Run premiered last December, said that the censorship board was never hostile to his project but expected a clean moral message for his family-friendly comedy, which involves two friends transporting $3 million of stolen gems. Since the plot features a police officer working with criminals, Visal made sure his script approached the subject with care.
“When we wrote the script, we watched through the process to make sure we didn’t incriminate the police guy,” Visal said. When asked if he could have portrayed police corruption more vividly, Visal said he could as long as it neither condoned corruption nor made specific accusations.
“If there’s a moral in that film where a cop is corrupted and he gets arrested and the government helps for his arrest, that should be fine. People are aware that corruption exists here. No one denies it. Just don’t point fingers at existing people.”
Upon receiving feedback from the censorship board, Visal said that the board only asked that he realistically portray police procedures in the movie. To comply, the production had a police officer serve as an on-set adviser. The board also made suggestions which Visal said he chose to follow but was free to ignore.
“They wanted us to make sure its Khmer. The way the actors dress, they shouldn’t be too foreign. They were mostly afraid we’d dress up our actors as Korean stars.”
The trick for getting a film approved, Visal said, is to resolve the plot in a way that delivers an agreeable moral for the story without criticising the government.
In Bora’s 3.50, one of his characters, after escaping a brothel, is last seen joining a group of other former sex workers instead of trying to return home. Her ultimate fate is never revealed, but the possibility of her returning to sex work is not ruled out.
“They said: ‘why don’t you find a solution for her, to find an NGO or new job?’ And I said that’s not my job. The filmmaker has no possibility to solve the social problem.”
Bora said that the board’s insistence that all plot conflicts be resolved before the credits roll suggests that the members of the committee, which Bora knows little about other than it consists of around 10 members, are not qualified film critics.
While the head of the censorship board did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication, local distributors have said that Cambodia’s regulations for foreign films are not as strict as some of its neighbours and focus mainly on sex, drugs, violence and profanity in addition to politics.
Simon Chow, distribution manger of Westec Media Limited, which is responsible for securing the local rights to major Hollywood productions, said that Cambodian censors are much more lax than in his native Malaysia.
“Different countries have different rules, and I think Cambodia is liberal at this,” he said, adding that even brief nude scenes, such as in the 2012 3D re-release of Titanic, have passed the censors.
“I think the board is quite educated in this, they know what is good for the Cambodian culture. We don’t want to tamper with the local culture, so I think we should just [hold] back.”
Neither Westec nor Sabay MVP, which focuses on distributing foreign independent films, ever had a problem with the censors until the latter tried bringing in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film was even banned in Malaysia despite being financed by a production company run by the Malaysian prime minister’s stepson.
Shakuntala Chandra, distribution manager at Sabay MVP, said that making The Wolf of Wall Street acceptable for Cambodian censors has not been easy.
“What can you cut from Wolf of Wall Street? The whole movie is supposed to be like that,” said Chandra, adding that she expects the final Cambodian cut to have the profanity stay and around six minutes of sex and drug use cut.
The good news for Bora is that he suspects that the board will soon give approval to 3.50 after months of limbo. He said that he recently received word from the board that senior officials in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts viewed the movie and found it acceptable, although it had not been officially approved as of press time.
Part of the hold up, said Bora, may have also stemmed from bureaucratic confusion that occurred after Bora’s production company and his Singaporean partners, who have a majority stake in the movie, both submitted the film for review independently of each other, leaving the government with two copies of the same film accredited to two different production companies.
Although Bora said he would prefer no censorship, he said that the government should provide more support to filmmakers if they want to exercise veto power over the final products.
“They have the censorship [in other countries], but they support the filmmakers. Like in Vietnam, censorship is very serious and very strict, but the government can fund up to 60 per cent of the film budget.”
Rithy Panh, whose film The Missing Picture is the first Cambodian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, said that the censorship board has never tried to cut his movies. However, he said that it would be better to depend on a content rating system rather than censorship.
“We are not in the time of censors. That time is over.”