Behind the scenes at the Bophana Centre

Behind the scenes at the Bophana Centre

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An archivist at the Bophana Centre shows a part of the film collection the centre has gathered over the past seven years. Photograph: Joseph Pocs/Phnom Penh Post

In the last 12 months, the Legend and Sabay Cineplex theatres have opened their doors, a committee has been established to formally submit local films for consideration at the Academy Awards, and Lost Loves, Chhay Bora’s feature about a family’s life under the Khmer Rouge, has won acclaim both in Cambodia and across the region.

As a new generation of aspiring auteurs cut their teeth and look confidently to the future, the Bophana Centre has spent the last seven years working tirelessly to preserve the country’s rich cinematic heritage.

The state of the local industry today is a far cry from what Rithy Panh found when he began piecing together documentaries in the country 20 years ago. The acclaimed director of S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine was shocked to find that reels of long-forgotten Cambodian films were being left to decay.

At the time, the Ministry of Culture had no means of providing storage for film reels, which require low temperatures and dry air for preservation. “Materials were disappearing very fast,” says the centre’s communications manager, Stanislas Touzet. “There was no existing archive centre run by the government. Only private organisations had the capacity to preserve reels and tape about Cambodia’s film history.”

Fearing that without action Cambodia’s pre-1970s film history would be lost to the world, Rithy Panh founded the centre in 2005 alongside Ieu Pannakar, who was responsible for the cinematic division of the Culture Ministry. Since then, the centre has eagerly sought film material from institutions and private collections across the world to digitise and preserve for future generations.

The breadth of the centre’s digital archives is remarkable. Its oldest cinematic content dates back to 1899, when the Association Frères Lumière shot grainy footage of a mounted Royal procession along what is now Sothearos Boulevard. The centre also boasts a collection of films directed by a young King Sihanouk, when the film industry benefitted from his patronage and indulgence at its height in the 1960s.

The centre’s outlook is very much anchored in the desire of its founders to provide educational and historical materials for Cambodians. In addition to the work of the digital archivist, a dubbing team translates all foreign-language material into Khmer. Accessibility is key: regular Khmer-language films are screened for visiting school groups and computers with access to the archives are available for free to the public.

As the centre’s archives have grown, its projects have become more ambitious in promoting its acquisitions. A travelling road show organised by the centre last year toured all 23 provinces, attracting a viewership of 53,000 people.

With a priority given to educating the young, Touzet says that the centre is a vital tool in igniting students’ passions for the history and culture in which they find themselves.

“Cambodian people are very interested in cinema, and this is an invaluable resource for them,” says Touzet.

The Bophana Centre is located at #64 St 200.

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