New programs aimed at boosting technical and creative talents of the Kingdom’s filmmakers hope to revive Cambodia’s languishing film sector
Nico Mesterharm, founder of Meta House, with Reuters cameraman Lach Chantha, a trainer with the Meta House master class.
Forty years after King Sihanouk's attempt to challenge Cannes and Berlin with his own Phnom Penh International Film Festival, Cambodia's film industry is languishing and cinemas are closing across the country.
A lack of funding, trained personnel and especially a shortage of creative ideas mean the industry is developing at a snail's pace, Western experts say.
But at the same time as a few long-term efforts are leading to increasingly sophisticated Khmer-made productions, more doors are opening up for young Cambodians who want to bring their dreams to the silver screen.
Matthew Robinson, founder of Phnom Penh-based Khmer Mekong Films, told the Post he is trying to help establish a strong media industry in the country and has been training Cambodian staff for years with some success.
"When I got here [in 2003], the [personnel] base was so low you could hardly see it," he said. "Now it is at least knee-high."
He complained that many Cambodians had the idea that filmmaking involved buying a camera and simply letting it roll.
"But that's not filmmaking," he said. "Unless you tell engaging, appealing, entertaining stories that are relevant to your audience, then you're not really going to get anywhere."
The inability to write good stories, he said, was not only due to a lack of training, but caused instead by a general lack of education and a cultural bias against literature.
There is an innate ability among many Cambodians to act.
"The reason they are short of ideas is that [Cambodia] is not a literary-based country. Nobody reads, there are no novel writers, no short-story writers," he said.
Robinson said he thinks it will be a long time before Cambodia could sustain its own film industry without outside funding.
"However hard you train people in filmmaking or top-quality lighting techniques, that is not going to solve anything," he said, "because for the foreseeable future [five to 10 years], you will not be able to get enough funds in this country for generating internal proper movies. The economy won't stand it."
New avenues of training
Gaelle Dakan from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center said employers ranging from foreign production companies, local TV and radio stations, and NGOs to advertising companies were desperately searching for qualified personnel.
"There is a huge demand for people who have capabilities in the audiovisual sector in Cambodia," she said.
In order to satisfy the demand, Bophana will start offering filmmaking courses in April, she said. Beginners as well as advanced students will be able to choose from classes teaching technical as well as creative skills.
The Meta House is in the process of starting an advanced program for university graduates who have already shot longer documentaries, according to its director, Nico Mesterharm. The one-year program aims to give students the skills to make documentaries and films that meet European broadcasting standards.
With its high entry requirement, the Meta House program will only enroll 10 to 12 filmmakers, a selection of the country's best. "There just isn't too much talent right now," Mesterharm said.
He also expressed regret that there were almost no female filmmakers who could be trained further.
"In Europe, if you have 10 students, five of them will be female," he said. "But in Cambodia, it is really hard just to find one."
While experts agreed that there was a shortage of talented directors, producers and technicians in Cambodia, one thing that the country is blessed with are good actors, Robinson said.
"There is an innate ability among many Cambodians to act," he said. "The moment you give them a chance to show emotions in front of the camera, it's unbelievable. They are brilliant, absolute natural actors."
He concluded: "I think the world one day will wake up to the fact that there are a lot of extremely talented, very watchable and dynamic actors in Cambodia."