In Phnom Penh in early 1974 it was proposed to close down all the places of entertainment in the city; Khmer Rouge forces were advancing and grenade-throwing terrorists were making public spaces increasingly risky.
The film maker Ly Bun Yim spoke up: "If we close the movie houses and dancing bars the enemy would have won one more battle already." The bars were shut but the cinemas remained open until that time in 1975 when people were just too scared to venture out at all.
Cinema has been a major art form for Cambodia, thus it was most fitting that Ly Bun Yim's An Au Euil Srei (Khmer After Angkor) should be the finale to "Cinema Cambodia", Pannasastra University's ambitious mid January programme of films and documentaries organized by Dr Raymond Leos, Dean of the Faculty of Communications and Media.
When first shown in the 1970s, Au Euil Srei An ran for six months. On Friday January 16, Chak-tomuk Theatre was packed to overflowing with a joyful, rapt audience from babes in arms to grandparents to once more enjoy this colourful dramatic and comic fable of love, loyalty and class. With excellent performances (particularly from a young boy playing a Puck-like character), the cinematography is ravishing and the film received a standing ovation.
Very few of Ly Bun Yim's actors survived but he himself was a sparkling presence at Saturday's follow-up conference at Pannasastra University: "Cinema Cambodia: Remembering the Past and Moving Towards the Future." A distinguished assembly of politicians, producers, directors, artists, journalists and movie facilitators testified to the importance of film and film making to Cambodia; they can foster a sense of national and self identitiy as well as generate revenue. His Majesty the King was acknowledged as the "Father of Cambodian Movies".
In the last couple of years there has been a renaissance of local film making. Phnom Penh has been brightened up by the luridly enticing billboards outside many of the refurbished cinemas which have reopened in the last year attracting throngs of young people.
Tomb Raider, Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts and Jean-Jacques Annaud's Two Brothers, big-budget foreign productions shot here in the last few years have also been good for the economy and shown the country's magnificent potential for locations for foreign films.
The business of the conference was to discuss ways to capitalize on all this to foster the revival and continued growth of this industry.
The problems identified included the lack of equipment, its cost and the lack of skilled actors and technicians. Of greatest concern was the issue of intellectual property - copyright. It is not only foreign films that are pirated; it is a problem which is having an adverse effect on local film makers. It was pointed out that fewer films are currently being shot locally because enthusiasts and entrepreneurs are increasingly unable to recoup even very low production costs when revenue is diverted to the bootleg market.
Ly Bun Yim warned: "Piracy is a matter of life and death to Cambodian cinema." Nick Ray of Hanuman Films, location scout and movie facilitator, regretted the lack of a Cambodian Film Commission or any one point of contact with which a foreign production company can negotiate. It was voiced that over-sensitivity to the vetting of scripts from the Ministry of Culture can and has frightened off foreign production companies. Corruption was also recognized as a deterrent.
Positive encouragement and practical advice was offered by many speakers. A good story was thought to be paramount. As cheap, broadcast-quality digital technology democratizes the means to make movies, production costs can be kept very low. Citing the Dogme movement of film makers, Deependra Gauchan of BBC World Trust pointed out that limitations are a spur to creativity. Restricting themselves to natural light, real clothes rather than costume and no technical equipment other than the camera (hand-held shots) the Dogme movement produced distinctive, original, financially and critically successful films.
Ly Bun Yim was keen to see the development of a Cambodian Film School to train actors and technicians but others felt that the best training was on the job. Matthew Robinson, Executive Producer for BBC Drama said that his development of a major TV soap opera here would soon greatly assist the pool of trained talent. Luke Hunt, Bureau Chief of AFP suggested that a festival of new 20 minute shorts could serve as a training ground and showcase for future talent.
The festival and conference was a resounding inspirational success. It was also wonderful to see the Chaktomuk Theatre packed with ordinary people taking so much pleasure. These were and are so much more than just 'old movies'.