Filmmaker Rithy Panh delivers the keynote address at the inauguration of Bophana Audiovisual Center on December 4. "This Center only began as a dream for Cambodia: one to regain access to the country's lost audiovisual archives, to create a space for production and reflection on images and their messages," Panh said.
A pioneering audiovisual center has been opened in Phnom Penh with Cambodia's most famous filmmaker, Rithy Panh, as its key founder. Panh hopes the center will not only help to preserve Cambodian's precious cultural heritage, but spearhead a new era of Cambodian cinema.
The Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre (BARC) - named after the courageous young woman executed by the Khmer Rouge in Panh's 1996 documentary film Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy - opened to the public on December 12 after a December 4 inauguration ceremony attended by the acting Minister of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA), Him Chhem, and French Ambassador Yvon Roe D'Albert.
"It's a real partnership between the French and Cambodian governments," said Céline Trublin, BARC's head of communication. Funding has come from the French government, the Paris-based National Audiovisual Institute, and support has been provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and technology giant Microsoft, among others.
"As [the Cambodian government] doesn't have money, they can help us in other ways," said Trublin. "The MoCFA is really supporting us - they are allowing us access to all their audiovisual archives, and they're giving us this building free for eight years."
The BARC is housed in a newly renovated 1960s building, inspired by the architecture of Vann Molyvann, and formerly a film training center.
BARC's archive includes films, audio recordings and photographs. Prized items include historic films of Cambodia by the Lumière brothers in 1899, King Monivong's coronation in 1928 and an invaluable stockpile of Khmer Rouge propaganda films and radio broadcasts.
Already, over 10,000 hours of material have been indexed and digitized, with at least as much waiting to be processed. According to Trublin, more is coming in every day from all over the world. More than half of the material is in French, and now requires Khmer subtitles. The BARC hopes to also to translate it into English as well.
Trublin said BARC's main purpose was to bring Cambodian culture to the public.
"It's free for all Cambodians," said Trublin. "I think in the first years it will be the educated Cambodians who come, so we will need several years to make it a reality. We have people here to help poor and illiterate people. There will be free workshops to train people how to use the database, which is in Khmer, French and English."
Foreigners pay $3 per entrance or an annual fee of $20, with discounts for the press, NGOs, teachers and students.
An important function of the center is to digitize all its material. All the archives will eventually be stored on the specially developed computer database. Digitization will allow material to be preserved and all original material will be returned to the owners.
"We have to prepare our country to embrace the digital era, otherwise everything will be lost," said Panh. "Things are going very fast now. How can you send it or communicate it [when it's] on 35mm?"
The BARC will also be working with the National Museum, National Library and NGOs, and advising them on digitization and cataloguing of their respective archives. They, in turn, will provide material for the BARC.
There will be public film screenings and photographic exhibitions, and there will be regular education programs for schools and universities.
Another aim of the BARC is to train Cambodia's future filmmakers and establish an internationally recognized national diploma. There is presently no film course in the Kingdom, according to Trublin. The BARC is planning university level courses, and hopes to get funding to allow poorer students to study free of charge.
Panh believes the film industry in Cambodia is far from reaching its potential. He would like the BARC to play a vital role in training Cambodians to make their own films and gain the technical ability needed to assist foreign film makers working in Cambodia.
"It's a great place here for films - beautiful scenery, good sunny weather, and now we have road infrastructure and security," said Panh. "But when foreign films are shot here they bring technicians from overseas, even from Thailand, because Cambodians can't use the machines. If they can use our technicians it'll be cheap for them and great for us. If they see they can make good films here maybe other industries will come here. It will boost the economy, but money is not everything: we have to know how to produce sound and images - otherwise we will be lost."
Panh is convinced the power of the image can instill aesthetic appreciation, ultimately helping to define and preserve Khmer culture.
"It's now the era of images. Seventy percent of Cambodian people are young - these people need to understand images like we understand writing. Of course they can watch karaoke, but they should be able to watch cultural programs too. You also have to show these images to the people who cannot afford them. If you teach them to love images, maybe they will produce them."
The BARC's 18-member staff is mostly Khmer, with three volunteer and three contracted foreigners. Panh, who receives no salary, said the BARC is trying to reverse the assumption that Cambodian must depend on others for help.
"The best way for people to help us is to come and visit us - you cannot speak about it if you don't see it," said Panh.
"We want our people to have access to our heritage and memory."