About an hour after dozens had gathered in Phnom Penh early yesterday morning to watch a live broadcast of the Oscars, Ewan McGregor and Viola Davis appeared on screen. Anticipation built as they announced the winner for best foreign film.
The room fell silent as they read out the verdict, in favour of … Paolo Sorrentino’s drama The Great Beauty. There were some crestfallen faces: Rithy Panh’s documentary film, The Missing Picture, which had garnered Cambodia’s first Academy Award nomination, had been edged out.
“When I heard the result from the TV, my tears wanted to drop down. I was so sad, but it’s okay, I am proud of Cambodia,” Phen Sovannarith, 23, an agriculture student from Pursat province, said.
He woke at 6am to travel from his home to watch the screening at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, a film preservation institute founded by Panh.
The crowd included Mang Sarith, the sculptor whose more than 300 clay figurines feature in the film, which tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Knowing that Mr Rithy didn’t get an Oscar this morning, I feel regret, but still happy and proud that the film has travelled around the world,” Sarith said.
The director expressed his feelings in an email from Los Angeles.
“We were so close to a historic moment, I am a little bit disappointed. But we shall overcome some day! I am confident. The next few years, Cambodian films will be at a very good level,” Panh wrote.
“We have very good artistes, a lot of people admire their work. Young directors will come, we must help them and support them. It will be great for the country, industry, culture, and of course, economy.”
Fans flooded social media sites with consolatory comments. A Facebook user named Kanika Mini captured the mood of many when she replied, “you are already a winner in our hearts”.
Fellow directors added to the praise, including Sok Visal, whose debut feature film, a slick heist comedy titled Gems on the Run, was screened in the capital last year. “I am still very, very proud – no matter what,” he said.
“Hopefully after this, the Ministry of Culture will be more open to approving similar projects for filming. Not only horrors and comedies but more serious and history or reality-based stories can be approved too, especially if they can represent Cambodia at film festivals around the world.”
Panh’s niece Bosba Panh, 17, an aspiring singer, watched the ceremony at home in Boston, on the US East Coast.
“I was always inspired by my uncle, his humanity and the way he was the first one to talk with pictures about life in Cambodia after the war,” she said, adding that she fondly remembers taking fishing trips with her uncle as a child when she lived in Phnom Penh.
“There are different ways of showing hope and humanity even in the darkest times, and I think that uncle Rithy did it in a respectful way,” she said of the film.
In Paris, Jean-Baptise Phou, the actor who provided the English voiceover, woke up to the news yesterday afternoon.
“I had been dreaming about it, and felt an urge to wake up to check the result. When I finally did first thing in the morning, I felt a big disappointment. But it only lasted a second. Pride and happiness came back straight away: The Missing Picture made history.”
The other nominated films in the foreign-language category were: The Hunt from Denmark, Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium and the Palestinian film Omar, as well as Italy’s entry.
Commentator Ben Zauzmeer, who used mathematics to predict Academy Award winners, put The Great Beauty at a 40 per cent chance of winning. His calculations make use of data from previous years, other awards shows, nomination categories and critic’s scores.
"The only movies that had a chance for foreign film were The Great Beauty and The Hunt," he said.
"This is due to nominations from the Golden Globes and various film critic circle awards.
"The best indicator for the The Missing Picture was that it had the highest Rotten Tomatoes score, but that's not a very strong indicator.
"It did win Cannes and Cinemanila prizes, but neither of those has a history of successfully predicting Oscar winners."
But in Phnom Penh, the morning’s disappointment did little to upset the spirit of celebration.
On Sisowath Quay, another party was held at Riverhouse Lounge, with about 50 guests dressed in black-tie.
Joshua Ir, a marketing manager from Phnom Penh, said: “He deserved to win and, although I’m sad [the film] didn’t, I’m hopeful for the future of filmmaking in Cambodia.”
The crowd at Bophana, meanwhile, included some with ambitions of their own. Despite Sovannarith’s agriculture studies pulling him in another direction, he said his real dream is to make films like Panh.
“I love Rithy Panh. One day, I want to join him, if I am able.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VANDY MUONG AND CECELIA MARSHALL