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Cambodia still mad about the movies

There are unmistakable signs that the Cambodian film industry is in the midst of a revival. The nature and extent of this revival remains unclear, but there are encouraging signs.

New production companies are springing up, a growing number of films are being produced, and nearly a dozen movie theaters are now open for business in Phnom Penh, including the newly restored Cine Lux on Norodom Boulevard and a modern two screen complex on the top floor of the new Soriya Mall near Psah Thmey. Although many of these theaters screen foreign product (films from Hong Kong, India, and-up until last January's riots-Thailand), local audiences have shown an appetite for more Cambodian films (witness the box office success of the two film versions of the traditional Khmer story Tum Teav which were released nearly simultaneously last year and which played to packed houses).

There are other positive signs. During last November's Water Festival celebrations, every movie house in Phnom Penh was showing a Khmer film, something that hadn't occurred in this once movie mad nation for many years.

All of this is in stark contrast to the grim situation faced by Cambodian filmmakers barely three years ago. In a country which had a vibrant film industry in the 1960s and early 1970s, with local studios releasing an average of 50 plus films per year, and more than 30 theaters open for business in Phnom Penh alone, the 1990s turned into a disaster for Cambodian film producers.

The influx of pirated movies on video and later DVD effectively killed off the movie theater business by the end of the decade. Only a handful of film companies were ekeing out an existence and things had gotten so bad that when Cambodian director Fay Sam Ang attempted to screen his film The Snake King's Child in Phnom Penh at the end of 2000, there was not a single commercial cinema open in the city to show it. Instead the film's producers had to lease the screening room at the French Cultural Center and give outdoor showings in the courtyard of one of the local television stations.

Despite these difficulties, Cambodian audiences were enthusiastic and flocked to the screenings, signaling that Cambodian cinema, while in serious need of resuscitation, was not dead yet.

Given from where the industry has come from in three short years, there is reason to be optimistic. But major obstacles remain. Perhaps the most talked about threat to locally produced cinema is film piracy, a multi billion dollar business and a worldwide problem.

Few would disagree that efficient enforcement of copyright and intellectual property laws are vital to the survivability of the Cambodian film industry. With the new law on copyright already in place, there must now be a concerted effort to protect the rights of filmmakers and to protect and encourage the growth of local film production. However, inadequate governmental resources, inconsistent or lax enforcement, and ever present corruption make a daunting task.

Another major problem lies in what is often referred to in the Hollywood movie industry as "below the line talent" - camera operators, film and sound editors, assistant directors, lighting and sound technicians, set designers, makeup and costume people, etc.

These are the vital folks who make a movie set hum; without them no production can ever succeed. Although there is a small group of competent Cambodian technicians, many of them working for local television stations, their number is woefully miniscule.

Developing a well trained and professional cadre of competent "techies" who are well versed in the latest methods and technologies will help improve production values of Cambodian films, TV shows, and commercials, as well as help make Cambodia a more attractive and cost efficient place for foreign film companies to come and shoot movies.



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