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Khmer cinema classics back on big screen for free at WB Arena’s outdoor movies series

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An audience gathers to eat BBQ and watch Jailbreak from their tables and mats at WB Arena on April 30. SUPPLIED

Khmer cinema classics back on big screen for free at WB Arena’s outdoor movies series

On a recent Saturday evening at WB Arena, Bunsong was enjoying a tasty BBQ meal with his family after work on the long tables that had been arranged out in front of the restaurant as they watched a Khmer action movie on a big outdoor projection screen.

“I think it is a great idea. My kids really liked the movie and it gave us a reason to spend more time together as a family. We’ll definitely come back for the next one,” the 33-year-old family man told The Post.

Eating and watching movies with the family isn’t exactly a new invention, but people born into generations Z or later don’t seem to have the same understanding of group activities and shared experiences that people who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s or earlier do.

“When there were any events or holidays related to religious ceremonies – or even if there was a party reception held at a home or pagoda – people would walk over to it from far and wide and they’d gather at night to watch movies – usually just on a regular TV screen,” said Thol Akara, 49, adding that today you can get a big flat screen TV for cheaper than ever before, but despite the low prices most young people never watch anything on any screen other than the one on their mobile phone.

One of those youths, Srey Pov, was also at the outdoor cinema at WB Arena and for her it was a unique experience as it was the first time she’d attended this sort of event.

“Great Night! Watching Jailbreak in an outdoor setting was fun. It was a new experience for me to watch the same thing as everyone else out under the night sky,” said the 18-year-old.

Another young man, 25, who watched the outdoor movie screening said it was enjoyable but he still found himself checking his phone constantly and that divided his attention. Obsessive-compulsive phone scrolling is a habit that is hard to break for many people these days, evidently.

“I’d seen Jailbreak already, but I just wanted to experience it at the outdoor cinema. It was made more exciting at times due to the audience’s group reactions to what was happening on screen and it was nice to have food vendors of all sorts available right here to order from,” he said.

“Travelling Screen started in January 2020 in Cambodia with several free admission screenings in remote areas of the Kingdom for rural audiences,” Valentin Dube, a Frenchman who has been passionate about cinema since his teenage years, told The Post.

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There is a limited amount of seating on benches at tables available for the audience so it is best to bring your own mat or chair if a large audience turns out for the films. SUPPLIED

Unfortunately the planned launch for the organisation happened in parallel with the Covid-19 pandemic and outdoor screenings were held only in a few places over the past couple of years such as Kampot, Kep and M’pay Bay Village on Koh Rong Samloem where the crowds would be small enough to keep everyone socially distanced. They also did a screening in Phnom Penh for the Cambodian International Film Festival 2020.

Dube said that the Travelling Screen project is meant to introduce people to cinema in all its forms – comedy, horror, drama, documentary, art films, action, science fiction and the rest – in an enjoyable way, whether it’s an obscure independent film from Europe, a local favourite or a Hollywood or Bollywood or Hong Kong blockbuster epic, because people still may not have gotten a chance to catch some of those films on the big screen here, especially in remote areas.

Travelling Screen is open to the idea of screening just about any film if there’s going to be an interested and engaged audience for it because it will bring people together and increase their passion for the cinema, Dube said.

Dube earned his Master’s degree with a thesis titled “Cinemas in the digital age: Innovative practices in marketing and audience relations.” As the title indicates, it marries together Dube’s interest in film as an art form and film as an industry that needs to attract an audience to survive.

“The ritual of the movie experience where you watch a film together with a large audience of friends and strangers and it begins at an appointed time and follows certain rules of etiquette – all of that is really part of the culture of my home country France and has been for nearly a century,” Dube remarks.

Dube worked in the movie industry in France for several years with jobs at a film distributor and a video on demand online platform and doing international sales development for digital film platforms as well as doing sales development for new immersive technologies that could be applied to cinemas, theatres and auditoriums.

“However, after several visits to Cambodia over a period of years I fell in love with this country and its people and whenever I was back in France I always felt that I wanted to be here instead,” he said.

“Cambodia was once called the Pearl of Asia and it had a strong cultural dynamism focused on the arts, including music but also, in particular, the cinema. Even His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk produced films,” Dube said.

He was speaking about an aspect of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s legacy that fewer people are aware of these days, but in addition to his political achievements and his status as one of the founders of the modern-era Cambodian state, the late King Father was also a prolific filmmaker whose career began in the 1940’s and ended in 2006 when he retired with a final tally of 50 feature-length movies – which he often wrote, produced, directed and even acted in himself.

Film thus holds a special place in Cambodia’s recent cultural history and these outdoor screenings for large groups organised by the arts organisation Travelling Screen follow in those royal footsteps by promoting a wider appreciation for it.

“Moreover, the principles of community and sharing are very important to the Cambodian people and it is part of the heritage found in the Khmer culture’s DNA,” Dube observed.

He said he is planning to organise screenings in Phnom Penh and the provinces in collaboration with Anti-Archive, the Cambodian Film Commission, Kongchak Pictures and the new generation of Cambodian film producers who are trying to revive this part of their cultural heritage and promote Cambodian cinema.

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Travelling Screen had the misfortune of launching its organisation one month before the pandemic began. Only now, two years later, are they finally able to realise their vision and provide free outdoor film screenings without restrictions. SUPPLIED

“Movie screenings should be accessible to everybody and that is the case in the big city as the average price for a ticket is around 2.5 to 5 dollars. However, outside of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, most of the cinemas in the country pre-Khmer Rouge were destroyed or went out of business long ago and have never been replaced,” he said.

The invention of smartphones and their total ubiquity in society globally has altered the media consumption habits of humanity and this revolutionary technology has made watching films in cinemas on large screens less common of a practice and less relevant to the newer generations that have grown up with iPhones and Androids glued to their hands.

Therefore, Dube says, outdoor screenings must be held free of charge and in the most appealing format possible in order to be accessible to the greatest number of people and to attract this new generation to discover the difference it makes to experience great cinematography on screens large enough to convey the intended grandeur or visionary scope of the film’s creators.

“Of course, our screening equipment, paying for the license to show the films and the organisation’s administration all have a cost – and that is why Travelling Screen tries to finance its programmes through partnerships and sponsorships with companies who wish to advertise or promote their products and services,” said Dube.

After a year of discussions and planning between the WB Arena and Travelling Screen – and crucially the lifting of all pandemic related social restrictions – they held their first screening there recently on April 30th.

“Cambodia and its climate lends itself to outdoor events and many Khmer traditionally have lived a large part of their day outdoors. So this type of concept is one we hope will attract Khmer people,” said Dube.

Though the outdoor movie is free to attend for the audience members, Travelling Screen is careful to respect all copyright and intellectual property regulations and only screen films that they have permission to show.

“We make a real effort to prevent the piracy of any of our screened movies with staff watching out for it and we make an announcement beforehand about why the piracy of films and other media in Cambodia is wrong and must end in order for the Khmer-language entertainment industry here to be able to modernise and expand to be on par with the industry regionally and someday globally,” Dube said.

At the second free outdoor movie night at WB Arena on May 14 at 6pm, Travelling Screen is showing a romantic comedy titled 25-year-old Girl by the Cambodian veteran woman screenwriter and director Poan Phoung Bopha.

The series of screenings at the WB Arena will have a limited amount of seating on benches available for the audience so it is best to bring your own mat or lawn chair if a large crowd is in attendance.

For more details, follow this link: https://bit.ly/TravellingScreen

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