French technician adjusting the projector for the next scene.
The film industry in Cambodia is booming. Amid the growing number of Khmer films,
producers are arriving from as far away as France and California. At least five foreign
producers shot films in Cambodia during the last three years.
Filmmakers are attracted by the exotic landscape and people, says Som Sokun, director
of the Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion in the Ministry of Culture and
Fine Arts (MoCFA) which provides technical assistance to those wishing to make movies.
"Cambodia is a studio," he says. "It is alive and natural....The people
come to film here because the country is at peace with natural scenery and resources."
Even the big Hollywood studios have cast Cambodia as the setting for their cinematic
Blockbusters such as Tomb Raider, produced by Paramount Pictures, brought Angelina
Jolie to the temples of Angkor Wat in 2000. A soon-to-be-released movie about twin
tiger cubs, The Two Brothers starring Guy Pearce, was shot with remote hill tribes
in Mondolkiri in 2002. It will reach audiences later next year. And more are on the
way, says Sokun.
According to cast members on the set for The Two Brothers, Cambodia may host the
next installment of the Indiana Jones series staring Harrison Ford.
However, Cambodia presents some major difficulties for filmmakers. Because it lacks
advanced film equipment or props, producers must either import equipment from Thailand
or ship it from their home country. As a result Cambodian cinema is rarely up to
And the domestic film industry remains just a small part of what an average Cambodian
sees in the theaters and on television. Most of the media is dominated by foreign
After 1979, Thai shows began to air on local TV channels and Thai films were shown
at the local cinemas. That changed immediately after the January 29 anti-Thai riots.
Local TV stations are now showing more Chinese and Indian movies.
The government has officially begun encouraging Khmer filmmakers to develop modern
filming techniques and produce more Khmer films, according to officials in the MoCFA.
One of the most famous Khmer producers is Rithy Panh who released S21: The Khmer
Rouge Killing Machine in 2002. He is the creator of five films, including The People
of the Ricefields, which appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 1994.
He is one of the handful of filmmakers helping to resurrect cinema after the Pol
Historically, Cambodia supported a thriving film industry.
Before the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, many aspiring filmmakers attended cinema
school in France at the former Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques.
The Paris school, renowned for graduating innovative filmmakers such as Rithy Panh,
produced several directors who later collaborated with King Norodom Sihanouk on various
films in the 1950s and 1960s. Sihanouk, called by some the father of Cambodian cinema,
directed and produced 15 films including Rose of Bokor and Revoir Angkor... et Mourir.
Speaking about his movies in 1995 at the 5th World Festival of Cinema in Brussels,
the King said "the star of my films is never an actor, it is [always] Cambodia".
That all disappeared with the arrival of the Pol Pot regime in 1975. It wasn't until
1979 with the arrival of the Vietnamese that the newly reconstituted Ministry of
Culture and Fine Arts created a department of cinema.
"At the beginning, there was nothing," says Sokun. "We developed with
the help of the Soviet Union."
The Soviets provided projection equipment and assistance, a reversal from when the
United States Information Service provided training for producers and technicians
in the 1950s to produce documentaries as propaganda against communism.
French actors Isabelle Carré and Jacques Gamlin rehearsing a scene.
But Sokun says that Soviet aid thirty years later allowed the government to re-establish
movie facilities in the provinces and show new films-all administered by the MoCFA
That discretion over Cambodian cinema continues today. The process of making a movie
in Cambodia requires official authorization.
It starts with approval from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Foreign directors
usually hire an advisor who lives in Cambodia and has connections to expedite the
"A fixer helps [filmmakers] with anything they need," says one such local
advisor who asked not be named "They take them around and get permission from
the local authorities."
Compensation for this specialized job depends on the film's budget. One fixer says
he made $3,000 working with actor Matt Dillon during ten weeks filming City of Ghosts,
a movie about a scheme gone awry in Cambodia.
Another hurdle to producing movies in Cambodia is submitting an acceptable proposal
to the Department of Cinema. Once the Department's approval is assured, the Minister
of MoCFA must give final approval. Typically, the process takes two to three weeks,
The Department of Cinema turned down a film seven years ago because a foreign producer
wanted to film a story about Cambodian prostitutes. The Department did not find it
appropriate for the image of Cambodia. It says it censors any films with explicit
sexual content since it is contrary to the strict and reserved Cambodian views on
But for some foreign producers, the process has been relatively easy.
"We had to get authorization from the Department of Cinema, the Ministry of
Culture and Fine Arts, the governor, and the district authorities," says Marc
Olla, who coordinated the production of Holy Lola. "It worked out well."
Additional permits are also required to film in Siem Reap or near the temples of
Angkor Wat, such as in the case of Tomb Raider.
But the government is eager to encourage the industry since it would like to develop
a pool of professionals who could lure more lucrative projects to Cambodia. At the
moment, many of the foreign filmmakers hire Thai specialists and technicians because
Cambodians lack the necessary experience.
"We will create a committee to accommodate foreign film makers," says Sokun.
"We asked for one French expert to help us create this committee. If they can
create a committee, it will generate money for Cambodia and reduce poverty."
But there is already a powerful attraction to Cambodia for some filmmakers.
Bertrand Tavernier was drawn to Cambodia this year to film his piece, Holy Lola,
about the adoption racket in Cambodia after the French government suspended Cambodian
"I fell in love with this country," says Tavernier. "I find other
countries more difficult to work in. I think the country is exciting to film in.
There are mines of topics [here]."
Another French filmmaker, Patrice Leconte, started filming in November 2003. He calls
his movie a film of impressionist photographs.
His film has neither dialogue nor actors. It consists of shooting scenery across
the country accompanied by music. It will be released in France.
Next year, there may also be a production from Korea, a first from that country,
that could start filming at the beginning of 2004, says MoCFA.
According to an advisor with Leconte's production, director John Woo also came to
Phnom Penh during the Water Festival to see if Cambodia was suitable for filming.
Other filmmakers such as Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone have made visits to Cambodia
to scout for possible locations.
The Department of Cinema is optimistic about the future of Cambodia's film industry.
"It's great for us because it shows everyone that Cambodia is at peace,"
says Sokun. "We are in a stable situation, we can film throughout the country."
Cinema in Cambodia
L'oiseau de paradis
Femme de Passion
The Two Brothers
City of Ghosts
Untitled (by Leconte)
Untitled (Korean War movie)
Source: Interviews, Post archives, Internet