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Cambodia's push for filmmaking raises spectre of past censorship

Cambodia's push for filmmaking raises spectre of past censorship

NOT since the days of King Sihanouk has there been such a prolific film industry in Cambodia.

And the opening of the Cambodia Film Commission (CFC) last Thursday was a true gala, with film stars mixing with ministers, ambassadors and filmmakers, all buoyed by the prospect of a centre to professionally train local film crews.

But what kinds of films will these well-trained film crews be making?

Though King Sihanouk wrote and directed more than 30 feature movies, it is one thing to film in the Kingdom when you are the king and quite another when you are a foreigner shooting around a sensitive topic.

Guy Jacobson, writer/producer of the 2007 film on child sex-trafficking Holly, said by email from Colombia on Saturday that his experience of making a film in the Kingdom was "not a good one".

"This is very unfortunate, as Cambodia is such a beautiful, amazing country, and the Khmer people are some of my favorite in the world," Jacobson wrote.

"As a film location it is beautiful, authentic and interesting."
But the producers of the film were forced to pay officials major sums of money every day for the right to continue shooting, he said.

"As foreign filmmakers it seems that the only role of the film office, police, and other officials was to extract money from us on a daily basis - without delivering on any of their promises," Jacobson said.

"Due to this treatment our budget more then doubled. Basically we were blackmailed and had to pay bribes a few times a day."

However, it may have been the film's tough topic that landed the filmmakers in hot water. The production company Priority Films has taken a firm stand on child trafficking and prostitution, producing two documentaries about the subject, as well as its 2007 feature film.

CFC chief executive Cedric Eloy said Holly faced problems from the beginning because the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture did not grant approval to make the film.

"But they went ahead and shot anyway," Eloy said. "So the producers had to pay an enormous amount of money to shoot the film undercover - which spells disaster for any production company."

But the government had the right to exercise censorship, he said.

"Cambodia has the right to protect its own morals and culture - just as any country does," Eloy said.

Chief executive of Cambodian film company Kmy Films, Mariam Arthur, said that although graft is an obstacle in the minds of overseas filmmakers, the existence of the CFC should help to allay these fears.

The lack of trained crews also had to be addressed, she said.

"They could make movies 100 percent better here without spending an extra dime - the training is even more important than the equipment," Arthur said.

"The CFC will help build the film infrastructure necessary for the industry to flourish."
Eloy said the first aim of the CFC is to train highly professional film crews to international industry standards.

"Secondly, it will attract foreign film crews to Cambodia, hosting them and helping them find the right people to set up their project," he said.
The third goal is to help authorities facilitate the shooting and involve all the relevant ministries, Eloy said.

"Today Cambodia is one of the lower-cost destinations for the film producer," he said. "For example, for film sets, you can build your house or set for one-tenth of what it would cost in Western countries."

Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture Secretary of State Chuch Phoeurn said the CFC had been set up to attract more filmmakers, both local and international, to invest in film in Cambodia.

"We made the film commission to prevent problems happening in our film sector," he said.
Chuch Phoeurn said the ministry wants films to attract more tourists.

"It really helps our country to increase foreign tourists - and if films are made in our country then they will know about us, and they will come and visit," he said.

Eloy said in terms of permits, it is easier to secure a location in Cambodia than a similar one in Vietnam or Thailand.
But in terms of subject matter, is Cambodia still a conservative destination for the filmmaker?

"If there is a production company that wants to make a film in our country, the film commission has to check that the scenario of the story will not impact on our country," Chuch Phoeun said.

So the Holly experience poses the question: What types of films will the ministry approve?

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