Left, Duch Sophea and Meng Bunlo, the stars of "Staying single when" embrace in the closing scenes of the film. Middle, canisters of pre-WWII archival film await digitalization at the Bophana Audiovisual Center. Right, Tom Som, back left, directs Duch and Meng during the filming of "Staying single when".
Phnom Penh teems with fugitives, Mafiosi, and human traffickers. It's easier to buy
a 12-year-old virgin than a hamburger. The buildings are in an advanced state of
decay, the roads unpaved and bullet holes pock mark every wall. Welcome to the capital
of Cambodia - as portrayed in nearly every foreign-made film about the Kingdom.
Most contemporary films and even documentaries about Cambodia are Western-made. And
although they may be getting good reviews in the West, they are not pleasing the
government, film industry professionals or Cambodian cinema goers.
Now, a new generation of Khmer film makers - being trained by two independent organizations
- is hoping to produce a new style of Cambodian films that they say will better portray
the changing Cambodian culture.
"For the people who live here, the portrayal of Cambodia in these films is too
negative," said Mao Ayuth, former film-maker and secretary of state at the Ministry
of Information. "There is a real difference between foreign eyes and Cambodian
eyes; they want to see different things."
Nearly all the foreign made films, including Matt Dillon's 2002 directorial debut
"City of Ghosts," and Guy Moshe's 2006 "Holly" - his first instalment
of a planned trilogy of films about child prostitution - choose to emphasise the
country's sordid, seedy side. Even the much publicized "Tomb Raider" starring
Angelina Jolie thrust Cambodia's treasured temples into the global consciousness
with a superficial, sexy story-line.
Western-made documentaries also make prostitution, poverty and violence their central
themes. One of the latest examples is the story of Rochem P'neang, the "Jungle
Girl" who's re-emergence from 19 years of apparent feral living caught the world's
attention in January 2007.
"Our country is developing," said Tom Som, a young Cambodian director,
whose first feature length film was "Staying Single When," released in
2007. "We may not have many sky-scrapers yet, but we do have some very good
things. Foreign films show only the bad bits of Cambodia as it is more interesting."
"When I hear that foreign film-makers come to Cambodia to make another film
on human trafficking I feel unhappy," said Som. "Sometimes these documentaries
are not accurate - they exaggerate to make things look worse."
According to Som, the production team for "City of Ghosts" spent about
$10,000 on making one particular location look more squalid than it was to begin
with. Many Cambodians worry about the impact on international perceptions of their
"Cambodia is portrayed as a scary place you can run away to from other countries,
where there are many criminals," said Som. "This is not a good image for
Cambodia. Foreigners who come to Cambodia must respect Cambodia."
The Department of Cinema, housed in the Ministry of Culture, does take measures to
try and control foreign portrayals of Cambodia, said Choun Samnang, a trainee director
at Khmer Mekong Films, KMF, a new independent Cambodian film production company,
which currently is taking commercial contract film jobs to fund its bigger goal -
developing a new film industry.
"It is too much that foreign documentary makers show only human trafficking
- there are too many films about it," he said. "What about our traditional
culture? It is good the government intervenes - don't stop them making films, but
try to encourage them to make films about different things."
But for Rithy Pan, Cambodia's most prominent director and founder of the Bophana
Audiovisual Centre, a six month old private institution dedicated to preserving Cambodia's
film heritage and training new cinematographers, the problem is not the fact that
most foreign-films negatively depict Cambodia.
"We live in an open world and everyone can see and look at any subject as they
wish to," he said. "The biggest problem is how Cambodians can express their
own point of view - we need to build up technical skills to enable Cambodians to
get their point of view out onto an international stage, out to the world."
Cambodia's Cinematic History
The 1960s are regarded as the "Golden Age" of Cambodian cinema when more
than 300 Cambodian movies were produced. New production companies were launched and
theaters were built throughout the country.
In those halcyon days, the Kingdom was a destination of choice for the world's uber-trendy
elite. Jackie Kennedy stayed at Phnom Penh's Le Royal Hotel, Charles De Gaulle toured
the country, and the most prolific film-maker was the King.
King Father Norodom Sihanouk, a cinema fan since his student days in Saigon in the
1930s, made about 50 films, starting with "Apsara" in 1966. His early films
such as "Tarzan among the Kuoy," betray his preoccupation with Cambodia's
place in the world.
His later films are now seen by historians as foreshadowing social situations that
preoccupied Cambodia in the 1960s, 1980s or 1990s. For example, "Shadow over
Angkor" (1967) envisages the possibility of American or South Vietnamese intervention
in Cambodia. Sihanouk often served as producer, director, writer, composer and star
in his films.
The blossoming industry was decimated by the Khmer Rouge era. Although cinemas reopened
in 1979, the domestic film industry was slow to rekindle as many of the filmmakers
and actors fled the country or were killed. Those that remained stuck to simple subject
"They made a lot of sentimental films and karaoke movies," said Panh. "Mao
Ayuth made a few films about the Khmer Rouge, but you have to go slowly. When you
have just come out of a genocide then you don't want to go straight back and shoot
it. So you make Karaoke - people just want to forget, drink, escape."
During the 1980s Cambodian production companies began to re-emerge faced with competition
from DVDs and a prolific Thai film industry, in addition to a lack of copyright laws.
The unofficial nationwide boycott of Thai-products in 2002 forced the domestic film
industry into greater productivity,
industry into greater productivity, "but the results have not been too impressive,"
"The Cambodian audience really want Cambodian films," he said. "But
the film producers are not making any films that are relevant and appealing to the
Technology, Training and Tarantulas
KMF's Tom said although young people do go to the cinema, they are only going to
hang out, not to watch the lackluster plots in Cambodian films. The eradication of
actors and actresses during the Khmer Rouge era is not the only problem - there are
few trained technicians.
"You have to construct a real film industry," said Panh. "There is
so much creativity here, but no means to express it - young people can use a computer,
but the art of editing is different. Many think they have good techniques now. They
can switch on a camera and shoot film, but that is not a real technician - you need
an eye for images, an understanding of film."
Khmer films are far behind the West in technical expertise. Few companies bother
to record the real voices of the actors, but dub in voices after the final cut. Because
they don't have to worry about sound, Cambodian directors constantly prompt the actors
"This makes the acting very rigid as there is always a prompt: 'Stop!' 'Turn!'
'Smile!'" said Som. "The actors perform for directors; they are not really
allowed to be creative. The films are boring and badly made - but I am going to change
Som said it was the movie Rambo that inspired him to become a film producer. He got
a lucky break when he was taken on as a Phnom Penh trainee in the directing of the
BBC-managed Khmer-language television production "A Taste of Life."
But for others, opportunities to learn are few and far between. Most cinemas show
only Thai or Cambodian horror flicks. "Making film is like writing a book,"
said Panh. "You need to read to write. For films you need the 'cinematic' grammar.You
need to watch Orson Wells, Rosaline, all these people, then you can start to think
about what you want to do for yourself."
Change is in the air
There is some reason for optimism. The Royal University of Fine Arts is in the process
of opening a film school and the Bophana Center has already trained a handful of
film technicians. Young directors such as Som and Choun are determined to make sure
their own films reach a global audience.
KMF, where both Som and Choun work, has a goal of raising standards locally by producing
one quality feature film per year with good acting, directing and screen writing,
said Matthew Robinson, executive producer at KMF.
"KMF want to be producing modern 21st century Cambodian films especially focused
on the issues that young people face," he said. "We are not dealing with
political stuff, more with social stuff, the freedom to marry, the difficulty of
finding a job. We wanted to eschew all the traditional stuff of ghost and crocodile
The officials at KMF talk about Cambodian films becoming the next hottest export.
The producers place heavy importance on quality subtitles, which would allow their
films to enter international festivals.
Miriam Arther of Film Cambodia, another new organization that aims to strengthen
the Khmer film industry, said it's very important that the training allows film makers
to develop their own styles that reflect Cambodian culture.
"A lot of times a genre will evolve from a particular country - Kung Fu movies
from China, Dogma style from Denmark. I believe something currently unimaginable
will emerge from the heart of the Khmer."
Panh also emphasized the necessity to have films that reflect Cambodia's values and
heritage. "If you forget where you come from, if you lose your roots, then you
are good only for buying and consuming," he said.
"There is such a bombardment of images in modern world, but who is creating
images of Cambodia? It is very dangerous if you cannot express your feelings, your
point of view. This is why rich countries spend so much money on films and libraries,
it is necessary and essential. Poor countries may say their populations need to eat
first - and yes I agree, but also think of food for the mind."
Cambodia on the Big Screen:
Films currently in Production, Post
Production, or seeking Distributors
Guy Moshe's Holly depicts the relationship between a twelve-year-old Vietnamese girl
sold for prostitution in Cambodia (Thuy Nguyen), and Patrick, an American black-market
dealer (Ron Livingston). Their initial connection is disrupted when Holly is sold
to a child trafficker, prompting Patrick to search for her across Cambodia. Holly
has been highly acclaimed at international film festivals and is slated for an Autumn
The Red Sense
"The Red Sense" is the feature-length directorial debut of Australian Tim
Pek. Originally a fifteen-minute short, positive audience response led Pek and screenwriter
Rithy Dourng to extend the script. The plot focuses on Melear, a young Khmer woman
whose father was killed during the Khmer Rouge era; the title refers to their supernatural
connection: his spirit is able to communicate with her, urging her to expose the
truth behind his death.
Sleepwalking Through The Mekong
LA band Dengue Fever star in John Pirozzi's documentary, named after one of their
songs. Fusing contemporary rock music with Cambodian musical styles, the band's vocals
are sung in Khmer by lead singer Chhom Nimol; original lyrics are written in English
and then translated. The film follows the band's trip to Phnom Penh during the 2005
Bon Om Tuk festival.
Don't Think I've Forgotten
The short-lived Cambodian rock & roll movement infused the western original with
Khmer rhythms and vocals; however, during the Khmer Rouge era the majority of musicians
involved in the scene were killed. Director John Pirozzi explores "Cambodia's
musical heyday", interviewing the few surviving musicians as well as families
of the murdered stars who epitomized the movement, such as Ros Serey Sothea. Currently
Where The Lotus Blooms
This movie tells the story of a young American woman's experiences of working in
an orphanage in Cambodia. Like many expatriates, she develops a bond with the country
to the point that she can no longer consider anywhere else her home. Like many gap-year
students, she realizes this after "discovering herself". There is however
a poignant tone to the film, with the protagonist having to learn how "to cope
with the cruelties that life bestows upon her".
The Golden Voice
The "golden voice" of the title belongs to Ros Serey Sothea, a much-loved
Khmer rock star of the 1960's. Director Greg Cahill researched and wrote this documentary,
which garnered much praise, revived the memory of Cambodia's most popular singer
and won Best Short Film at Cambofest. Cahill has been conducting further research
into the life of Ros Serey Sothea with the intention of making a feature-length film.
Currently in pre-production, this film holds promise: director K.M. Lo's work includes
the acclaimed "Moto Thief," based on De Sica's neorealist classic "The
Bicycle Thieves." Lo's new feature is based on a true story of a returning Cambodian
refugee providing medical assistance to those in need. Using a tuk-tuk, presumably.
Compiled by James Barton