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Made in SE Asia: films champion local talent

17 Nico Mesterharm and Mark Eberle

Foreign TV stations might have the money to commission documentary stories about the wonders and heartaches of Southeast Asia – but it’s the locals who have the skill and ability to tell them.

That was the realisation that led to the creation of a region-wide festival which arrives in Phnom Penh today.   

Filmmakers from across the region, including two from Cambodia, will have their documentaries screened at cultural centre Meta House on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Showing 11 films from five Southeast Asia countries, the screenings will show highlights from the ChopShots Film Festival Southeast Asian Best Shorts Competition that was held in Jakarta last year, which only featured documentaries produced in the region.

Marc Eberle, festival curator and filmmaker, said that international broadcasters prefer documentaries shot by filmmakers who are native to the filming locations.

“The Western broadcasters, who have all the money to produce these films, they are not interested in foreigners like me telling the stories in a ‘colonial’ fashion,” he said.

“They want the stories from the local guys.”

The festival was organised by DocNet, a regional network of documentary training initiatives that includes Meta House. Coordinated by the Goethe-Institut and funded by the European Union, DocNet aims to provide both training and exhibitions for local documentary makers.

As part of its participation in DocNet, Meta House assisted the production of Cambodia’s two entries to the festival: 25 Frames to Move, which follows the production of the Kingdom’s first animation films in Battambang, and Two Girls Against the Rain, which tells the story of a lesbian couple from Takeo.   In Phnom Penh, the other screened films include The Hills are Alive, the competition winner that explored the lives of an Indonesian family living near a volcano.

“It is crucial to watch documentary films, especially in countries where they are not shown,” said Nico Mesterharm.

As the scene in the region develops, valuable cultural and political discussions will follow, said Eberle.

“Documentaries allow for national understanding and debates.”

Mai Lan Thai, DocNet project coordinator, said the region lends itself well to the genre.

“Southeast Asia is such a rich region in terms of history, but also in terms of the changes that are happening right now,” said Mai Lan in an interview from Hanoi.

“Despite the ASEAN alliance, neighbouring countries really don’t know much about each other. But with documentaries, people can know about other countries.”

For Sao Sopheak, whose short documentary Two Girls Against the Rain, will be screened on all three days, what is of real importance is that locals tell the stories themselves.

“Cambodians can tell the story from inside, while foreigners tell the story with the camera on the outside,” said Sopheak, whose film tells the story of a lesbian couple in Takeo.

“But we can show ourselves from our country and our hearts.”

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