Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields is often the iconic lens through which many people view Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge period.
More recent movies such as S-21 and New Year Baby have added further insight into the machinations and effects of Pol Pot’s rule. Despite these generally lauded efforts, film director Chhay Bora finds something missing from the big screen.
“Of course we really appreciate [these foreign films], that they help us to tell the world the story of Cambodia,” he said this week.
“We appreciate them, but we are Cambodian.
How come we cannot do anything about Cambodian history?”
Chhay Bora hopes that his first feature film will be up to the challenge.
Lost Loves, which premiered at Chenla Theatre in Phnom Penh last Saturday as the centrepiece of the Cambodian International Film Festival, is based on the true story of his mother-in-law and her life under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Chhay Bora’s wife of nearly 20 years, Kauv Sotheary, wrote the script and stars in the film as her own mother. An all-Cambodian cast and crew produced the film. (Chhay Bora said he would welcome foreigners – if only he could afford to hire them).
He thinks most Cambodians are not dealing with the weight of their own past, or their country’s. Memories surface often but they seem fleeting: “You’re sitting at the table, drinking with friends for two or three hours, it’s maybe one minute that it comes up, or 20 seconds, and then it disappears.
You just remember it and then express it,” he said.
The film, caught between a difficult subject and a flailing industry, demanded personal sacrifice and relentless commitment. Nearly all of his family’s savings, including the profits from the travel agency he founded over five years ago, Tour Asia Cambodia, have gone into the production.
Meanwhile, encouragement was scarce.
“All say [to me], ‘it’s crazy you invest in the film business, when the film market is dead here in Cambodia. And you choose a crazy topic, Khmer Rouge. Who’s going to watch your film?’” he said. He heard concerns that younger Cambodians would be too detached to care, and older ones unwilling to relive their worst days.
But he feels that now’s the time for Cambodians to depict their own past on-screen. “It’s shameful that only foreign film companies are doing Cambodians’ history, doing the Cambodian story.”
Although he studied acting for seven years at the Fine Arts University (now the Royal University of Fine Arts), where he met Kauv Sotheary in 1980, Chhay Bora has forged his own path as
a filmmaker. He said he studied thousands of individual movie frames to learn how to convey particular emotions on film.
On scholarship to study in Bulgaria in the 1980s, Chhay Bora said he passed the entrance test, but was turned away from film school because of the additional costs of producing a film for the final exam, which his stipend could not cover.
He was at a loss for direction. “I cried for seven days,” he revealed. “I feel that I’m an actor, you know – so what can I study, except this skill?”
He instead earned a master’s degree in economics, which he decided to finish even when the film school offered additional support the following year.
He returned to Phnom Penh in 1993, but his US$20 per month salary at the Ministry of Tourism forced him to cobble together a living wage through a mish-mash of private sector gigs, ranging from driving taxis to working for the British-American Tobacco company. In 1997, he founded the Institute of Tourism at the National University of Management, where he then taught and completed a PhD in business management.
The production of Lost Loves, which stretched over three years, was no easy task. When Chhay Bora started to shoot in 2008, just a year after Kauv Sotheary started writing the script, he struggled to realise the vision he had for the film. “I told my team, I am not ready yet,” he said. “I have to learn more.”
When the 45 days of filming began in earnest, the Lost Loves cast and crew made the most out of a tight budget by sleeping in villagers’ houses, temples and the jungle, but “never in a hotel”, he said. They filmed in October and November, switching between Takeo and Kampong Cham provinces in order to depict the range of wet-to-dry seasons on
a tight schedule.
Chhay Bora laughed as he described paying villagers in Takeo province to build a toilet – “a proper toilet” – on site with a short plastic wall that wasn’t quite able to cover one’s torso. Living in the villages while shooting was “very difficult – we are not used to it”, he explained. “But we had to do it.”
Even after they finished the film, they had to argue with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to keep two scenes. One showed an American flag in the army truck of a Lon Nol soldier who offered safe evacuation to the father of Kauv Sotheary’s character, Amara, just before the fall of Phnom Penh.
In the second controversial scene, Amara uses a stick to discipline her daughter in an attempt to prevent harsher treatment from Khmer Rouge officers in her village, who had ordered nearly all children to sleep apart from their parents.
In his opening remarks at the Lost Loves premiere, Chhay Bora said two questions drove him to produce the film. “What have I done to serve my country? What have I done to serve my people who died in the killing field regime?”
Bora lost his two older brothers under the Khmer Rouge, who came to power when he was 11. His oldest brother was “intelligent” and “skinny”, spoke French and English, and had nearly graduated from university. But he succumbed to malaria in Kampong Cham province and died.
His father and sister both also became infected by malaria and grew “very skinny, like the prisoners in S-21”, he said. “I gave them food, they couldn’t pick it up in their hand, or even open their mouths. You had to open his mouth and pour water in.”
In 1977, his second oldest brother was living in another village with his cousin but asked permission to live in the village with the rest of his family. Their father said the malaria was too dangerous, and he should stay away. Sure enough, once Chhay Bora’s brother arrived, he contracted malaria.
They took him to the hospital, but he later died.
“How can I keep quiet?” Chhay Bora said. “This happened to my family. This memory, I don’t know how people today forget. Whenever
I get good food, I think how good would it be for my brother to sit here eating with me.
“My movie, I am not doing it for the [Khmer Rouge tribunal]. I am not doing it for politics. I am doing it for my people, for Cambodian victims, who suffered, who died… to let the people judge what is wrong, what is right,” he said. “This is a true story.”
The film resonated with the audience at Chenla Theatre, with many visibly moved and several expressing their appreciation during the Q&A session afterwards.
One man said he was reminded of some of his experiences during the Pol Pot regime while watching the film. “Your show was so real to me,” he told Chhay Bora. He continued, saying that with support for the arts in Cambodia, “I think the world will recognise that Cambodia has [many stories to tell].”
“We have to share,” Chhay Bora stressed. “We have to share this story, whenever people are interested to listen.
People have pain, suffering, we have to share this to strengthen this world, and don’t go back to repeat [our history]. Cambodians suffered enough.
I put this message in my movie.”
Chhay Bora will host a screening and fundraiser at Meta House on November 15-16. Lost Loves will open at Chenla Theatre in Phnom Penh in December.