In a darkened studio in the back of a tiled villa on Street 200, acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh is sitting facing a detailed, miniature model house. One wall has been sliced open to reveal furniture and tiny books scattered on the floor. It is a replica of his own family’s house, he says, before it was lost during the Khmer Rouge.
The central force in Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge documentary cinema, Rithy has spent his career telling the hidden lives and experiences of Cambodia’s tortured past. This Friday the third Cambodia International Film Festival, which he founded, opens in Phnom Penh and for the first time more than half the films are local in content.
“I think we have great potential...when people come to shoot here we ask why they work in Cambodia and not Thailand they tell us that the main reason is not only technical but because of the Cambodian people,” he says, leaning forward.
When the festival began, quality films by or about Cambodia were slim pickings. But in three years the Kingdom has become more popular as a location for foreign films and with international success stories like Lost Loves, the scope of the festival has widened accordingly.
Since 2009 some 130 foreign films have been filmed in the Kingdom, employing hundreds of local crew and actors. But the lack of local technical expertise points to the need for professional organisation and a national film school, Rithy believes.
“If you want to create an industry you have to have to think about the way South Korea organises themselves. South Korea is the best place for film – every year they have two or three films in Cannes,” Rithy says.
Proof of the hope invested in the industry is the building we are in, home to the Cambodian Film Commission (CFC), a one-stop shop for foreign film producers, largely funded by the French Development Agency.
“The mission is to host all foreign film production - provide technicians, locations for foreign films. We’re kind of a tourism office for film,” Sophea Kim, the CFC’s film commissioner says.
The professional experience provided by overseas productions will hopefully contribute to the next generation of cameramen, technicians and directors.
How does the local, often dismissed, film industry of low-budget slapstick and karaoke fit into the CFC and the festival?
“They don’t know about film festivals. The CFC is a network: we do seminars, workshops and we try to get those people to come and exchange ideas and discuss but very few of them are interested. They don’t want to but we’re always reaching out to them.”
This year the festival boasts more than 50 films in total, screening for free at multiplexes, Bophana and the French Institute Le Cinema. Major French director Pierre Jolivet has been brought out by French cinema industry body Unifrance and Eloy hopes more French film personalities will come out and promote the event as it grows.
More than big names, he is excited by the increase of young Khmer names appearing in what might one day be credited as ‘early works’ – documentaries and short films.
“The program really shows that there are young filmmakers. Three years ago we couldn’t program one short film from Cambodia.”
Movie moneyspinner: ghost stories
First time film director Puth Por makes no bones about it: the money, not the art, was the initial driving force behind The Final Sleep, the only fully Khmer feature film in the Cambodian International Film Festival.
Por, the producer of a successful kids’ TV program, Kids Express, found himself in financial straits when the financial crisis hit and the DVD of the show (a kind of Cambodian Sesame Street, with puppets and an educational bent) swiftly fell victim to Cambodia’s rampant pirating industry. With a production team at his disposal and years of experience with television, Por decided the only thing to get the company out of their mess was to make a successful commercial film.
Sitting in his spacious Spieu Meanchey production studio, the producer is a ball of animated energy and tells the story of his unlikely journey into feature filmmaking with the flair of a master storyteller.
“Starting at the beginning,” he announces, setting the scene (“close up” and “pan out” also punctuate his story).
“I’m looking back to where I’ve been in the last 15 years. We had no education – my brothers, my sister and me – Because we were raised in the camps. I couldn’t even write Khmer. In the refugee camp I learned a bit of English, not even Khmer. When I became engaged to my wife, her uncle said, ‘Oh s**t, this guy doesn’t even know how to read.’”
Out of his family, only Por and his three siblings survived the Khmer Rouge regime, reuniting in refugee camps when they were in their teens.
Keeping his illiteracy quiet, Por found a job at a newspaper translating English and taught himself Khmer script, eventually becoming a reporter. He then made the move into advertising and was a copywriter at the firm Becks for 14 years.
“I learned about how to come up with concepts, ideas and (understand) what people don’t like,” he says. “At the same time I was the production manager for commercials. We hired Thai crew because we didn’t have Cambodian expertise. All this gave me the opportunity to learn about film production.”
Drawing upon all his advertising experience - including storyboarding , filming and consumer research – as well as his children’s puppet characters - Por gathered together the staff of Kids Express to explain his plan.
“I sent them out onto the streets to ask people, ‘What stories do you like? Love stories? Ghost stories? Legends? Action?’ I went to beer gardens, karaoke...people we spoke to all said, ‘I just want to get scared. There’s no movies that really scare me’...Eighty per cent liked ghost movies.”
The Final Sleep, a slickly made modern ghost story, was filmed in Kandal for $60,000 with a crew of 50 and mostly unknown actors. Unhappy with the original Khmer script, Por had his 16-year-old daughter and her friend translate it into English and asked a professional screenwriter to re-write it. Other filmmaking friends from his TV commercial-making days flew in from Canada and France to help with production.
The result, says Cedric Eloy, could set the new standard in commercial Khmer cinema.
“I think it’s good for people to see (current Khmer releases) and then see The Final Sleep and see the difference in quality. (Por) didn’t put the money on the big stars, he put it in the production.
And he is actually mixing the sound at the end of the movie, which is rare. A lot of films (here) won’t do post-production. There is not the money for it.”
With a separate feature production company now established and cinema outlets screening his film, Por is busy planning his next crowd-pleaser. It will not be about ghosts, though.
“I guarantee that it will be a better movie. The second one will be the best.”
But doesn’t his own market-testing show that ghost films are what the people want?
“It’s not about ghosts!” he insists, laughing. “But, well... it’s something related to ghosts.”
Forced marriage on film
“We are kind of the new generation,” says Guillaume Suon, whose film, Red Wedding, co-directed with Lida Chan, has won a best documentary award at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
“We try to transmit a reality that you see here in Cambodia. We have the language, the people. We don’t want to fall into the trap of selling it to a foreign audience. We let the characters speak for themselves... It’s an ethical position,” Suon, 30, says.
The film tells the story of Sochan Pen, a victim of forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge.
Sitting in their office at the Bophana audio visual resource centre, the pair speak reverentially of Bophana co-founder Rithy Panh and how his training influenced their filmmaking.
“(Rithy) trained us to be close to the subject and the character,” Lida, 32, explains.
“One of the rules is not to film a person but a character, we tried to make a film with her, not about her,” adds Suon. “This is one of the main trainings of Rithy - the way you edit it. We have access to the character. We try to cover it from a very close point of view.”
Suon and Lida formed a bond with their subject, Sochan Pen, while working with the civil parties at the Khmer Rouge trial and hearing the shocking account of her own forced marriage.
“When I met her I saw we could do something with her,” Lida says. “Step by step she started to talk and talk.”
While getting Sochan, whose own children did not know the whole story of her trauma, to talk to the camera opened a floodgate of memories, piecing together the story and capturing an emotional truth proved a complicated task.
“We tried to... work out the truth and find out the whole story – that’s why it took a long time. When we decided to make a real movie, rather than just document the story, you have other priorities... (and) an ethical position. But she understood it.
She wanted to make the story known to the public and the next generation because for 30 years she was not seen as a victim,” Suon says.
Before Bophana, both Lida and Suon (who is French-Cambodian) worked in journalism before applying for film training through the CFC, with Rithy. With their small team, all aged in their late 20s to early 30s and with parents who lived through the Khmer Rouge, they have undergone training and are now embarking on documentary making careers.
“We are a rare country that we have a saved film archive. That’s rare. Bophana is nearly finished now in digitising our cinema archive,” Rithy Panh says.
“It is a great challenge, to have a poor country and train our young directors to give them possibilities to put something out in the digital world.
“Technology is good but it’s not good for everybody. If you don’t create your own images, as a small country you lose your culture and identity.”
Puth Por, first time film director of The Final Sleep. Hong Menea