Meta House’s film programme puts Cambodians in charge of the camera, telling their own stories
Nico Mesterharm believes in training filmmakers where they work the hardest: in the field. As the director of Meta House and its new film programme, Mesterharm employs practical, rigorous, on-the-job training for his Cambodian students.
Funded by a Goethe Institute grant, this first year of the film programme at Meta House allows students to envision, organise and shoot their own documentaries and dramas. They practise camerawork, scripting and project proposal, all through creating films.
“I, as a foreigner, step away,” Mesterharm said. “I try not to interfere with the ideas of the students, still maintaining a Western production standard.”
The shifting group of about 20 students are handpicked from a variety of backgrounds. Borei Silivann comes from academia. He graduated from the Royal University’s programme in media and communications in 2006.
Chamroeun impressed Mesterharm during a single workshop, and was invited to stay. At 17, Chamroeun is Meta House’s youngest participant.
Sao Sopheak comes from an unrelated field, but possesses a journalist’s instincts. She is one of only two women currently working with Meta House.
Meta House unites students under the eye of a film professional. They switch roles from project to project, learning from one another as much as from their tutors.
All students share the capacity for hard work. “Here, it’s not the red carpet, it’s not the big buffet,” Mesterharm said. “It’s really down-to-earth work: sweaty, getting up early in the morning, with time pressure and budget concerns.”
“Sometimes we film over 10 hours a day,” Sao said, “Or in the countryside for a week at a time, living in villages.”
Meta House addresses problems particular to Cambodia. Borei said he feels the Cambodian educational system hinders explorative thinking: “People tend to be restricted from expressing the free and new ideas that lead to creativity.”
Meta House helps students overcome this internal obstacle, while securing for them technical and financial support.
Participants learn to approach Mesterharm with project proposals. He weans students from reliance on the vision of others.
All it takes to join the Meta House programme is a commitment to tough work, and a lively curiosity. “Somebody who is not satisfied with one answer to one question has a big plus in my eyes,” says Mesterharm. Applicants must send him an introductory email, proposing an original film concept.
Meta House’s emphasis on creativity shows in its students, who burst with ideas. They speak passionately about the documentaries they have already created, and the films that they will make in the future.
“Since I believe that movies are representations of social reality, I want to make documentary films that reflect the way of life of Cambodian people,” says Borei.
Chamroeun hopes to tell stories that “relate to young people because I know how difficult it is for a child.” He has a particular interest in reporting on the situation of child workers.
Sao prepares to produce films about female empowerment. She wants to tell the story of nuns living in inequality with monks. “It’s my dream to be a female filmmaker in Cambodia,” she says.
This remains a rare thing, but Meta House has taught Sao to believe in the power of assertive vision.