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Preserving the past to build a (digitally remastered) future

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Cambodian cinema has languished in karaoke limbo for decades but the Bophana Center’s preservation efforts and a new generation of cinematographers look set to change all that

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The cast and crew of Khmer Mekong Films’ latest film - a thriller titled Heart Talk - on location in Phnom Penh earlier this year.

The film and television industry has only seldom risen above the level of cheap karaoke videos and low-budget horror flicks, but one organisation hopes to change that by training a new generation of film technicians using archival footage of the Kingdom's past.

The Bophana Audio Visual Resource Centre (BAVRC) is currently gathering historical sound recordings, photographs and film footage from more than a century of Cambodian history into a central and searchable database, free of charge and available to the public.

"We ask people to bring their old films to the centre," said Rithy Panh, Cambodia's leading film director and founder of the resource centre.

"We digitise the material for the archives and then return the originals to their owners."

Rithy Panh is best known for his 1994 film Rice People, which was selected for competition at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

It was also submitted to the 67th Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film - the first for a Cambodian director.

The centre holds free screenings every Saturday at 4pm for the public and holds regular exhibitions for young artists.

"We also have workshops here," said Thanaren Than, a research analyst at the centre.

"We play games to try to make the children understand what an archive is and why the preservation of films, pictures and sounds is important."  

Improving standards

At present, Cambodia's film and television industry is not known for the quality of its productions.

"Most of the Cambodian-produced films in the country's cinemas right now are unwatchable," said Matthew Robinson, executive producer and owner of Khmer Mekong Films (KMF), a film and television production company based in Phnom Penh.

He added that movie-goers are often more interested in the cinema as a place to steal a private kiss than to see a quality film.

KMF is the leading film and television production company in Cambodia, with 14 Khmer staff members, and is regularly commissioned by NGOs, charities, and other organisations to make drama series or adverts.

KMF also released one feature film, Staying Single When? in 2007, and has finished shooting a second, Heart Talk, which is in the final stages of editing for a possible release later this year.

If there are film crews it means there are hotels, roads and restaurants.

The lack of funding is the root cause of Cambodia's poor cinema quality, according to KMF's Robinson, who cited the success of the BBC-managed Taste of Life, a 100-episode television drama about HIV/Aids issues that aired on Khmer TV from 2003 to 2006, as an example of what can be done with the necessary capital.
"[It] was a massive hit with around 55 percent of the population tuning in, but it was funded by British government money," Robinson said.

KMF is trying to create a base of well-trained filmmakers to improve domestic film and television production.

"I've been working for nearly five years in the industry," said Chuon Samnang.

"I started out as an assistant director working on Taste of Life, after receiving about four months of training with staff from the BBC Cambodia.

Bophana and KMF also hope that a stronger production infrastructure will attract international filmmakers looking to shoot in Cambodia.

"Film crews will need a producer, a fixer, good technicians and so on for their films, so we want to train Cambodians to do these jobs," Rithy Pahn said.

Moreover, the growth of these industries gives a strong indication that Cambodia has moved beyond its turbulent past and toward a more stable future.

"If people can successfully film here it means there is stability and security in the country," he said.

"If there are film crews it means that there are hotels, restaurants, roads and hospitals," he added.

"Successful filming in Cambodia sends the message to other filmmakers that it is OK to come here."

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