IN his house in Tuol Kork, Yvon Hem keeps the weak light of Khmer cinema alive. He
is one of the few film makers remaining from the 1960s - the days when there were
up to 200 Cambodian films produced annualy.
Today, downstairs in his home, a couple of students are learning how to act. The
teachers explain how to move and behave in front of a camera. Karaoke music plays
in the background and they move and sing to the music.
"They are beginners," he says. "We start to train them on karaoke
Hem teaches acting, directing and editing, but today has just eight trainees - a
far cry from the old days.
Behind the students, two ancient unused projectors testify to the time when Khmer
films drew people to more than twenty cinemas in Phnom Penh. A dusty camera, the
type popular in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, lies in the cupboard next to the
Now, Hem is pessimistic. To him, there are no real movies made any more.
"There are no more film directors," he charges. "They have all become
businessmen and nothing else. Just a few of us remain."
But with those few, Hem is attempting to save - more precisely to recreate - the
Cambodian film industry. They formed the Khmer Film Association and started to work
"I cannot stand a country without cinema production. It is not possible to have
modern culture without film," he says passionately.
Hem started his film career in 1964 when he was just over 20. His sister was an actress,
he was employed in the same production, and he fell in love with the magic of cinema.
He recalls taking some lessons through a correspondence course from a famous French
school of cinema and had a traineeship in a French film-processing laboratory.
Of the 20 films he produced in the '60s, today there are precious few. Most copies
were lost or destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Occasionally, one of them turns
up, such as one discovered in the United States.
"You know when people came back to Phnom Penh in 1979, it was a bit of a mess,"
"People moved into the first residence they found. The houses were still full
of the belongings of the previous occupants four years before. The newcomers had
to deal with the stuff and sometimes sold or destroyed it. Some films were sold at
the Thai border, that's how one of my films was saved," he recalls. "It
was sold and then sent to the States."
After the destruction of the Khmer Rouge times, cinema production started again with
help of the state support, and film stock given by Vietnam.
In 1988, Hem was able to shoot 'Shadows of Darkness' - which will be presented later
this month in the non-competitive 'Fringe Festival' segment of the 'First Biennial
Southeast Asian Film Festival' in Phnm Penh.
Two years later, his 'The Passion of Evil' was funded by some Khmer-Americans.
Hem recalls when about 180 producers where working on films, in fierce competion
between themselves, in the 1980s.
Today, he is angry. Film has all but disappeared, victims of its enemies - television
and the Chinese serials endlessly played on it, and cheap imported videos.
"There is no justice. Those foreign videos can freely enter in the country,"
he says, complaining that Khmer television stations only have to pay a couple of
hundred dollars for the right to screen them.
Of most of those who still produce home-grown films, mainly for television, he is
"You cannot call the newcomers 'film directors' - they are simply businessmen.
They can do a film in one month.
"Those producers think that being a film maker is easy. A film maker is an artist
not a businessman. You know to produce a great film you need more time than a month
- maybe six months."
Today, nobody in Cambodia earns a living from film production, according to Bun Narith,
director of the Ministry of Culture's cinema department.
"Only the King's crew is able to produce a film," says Narith. "All
the other film makers have to have another job to live on."
Pragmatic, Narith believes there is little he can do to stop the disappearance of
cinema. His department now works to produce quality television programming.
Only occasionally does cinematic opportunity arise. Rithy Panh, the director of Neak
Sre (Rice People) - a rare example of modern Khmer cinema, a 1993 film selected for
the Cannes Film Festival - used some of Narith's trainees in his last production.
Yvon Hem, along with his friend Ly Bun Yim, another old-timer in the business, still
dream on of repeating the glory days. They just need a bit of money.
"You know I did not forget anything," says Bun Yim. "I can do everything.
I used to work in all stages of film production from the script to the editing."
If he has the money, Yim is ready to start again - providing he can find a good story
which would please not only Khmers, but a foreign audience.
"We need to have an international story to have success abroad. Otherwise it
is useless. The Khmer market is way too small."
Bun Yim produced many films before the war, and his 1965 'Twelve Sisters' will feature
in the Phnom Penh film festival.
Yim, with three of his films to be shown at the festival, and Hem with one, are happy
at the prospect of new exposure. But Hem confesses to a few doubts. Like a diva complaining
about her performances, he feels his "Shadows of Darkness" may not be appropriate
for a festival.
"For a festival you really need a popular movie with a fictional story,"
he said. 'Shadows of Darkness' is not really this kind of movie. I wish I would have
been able to produce a film specially for this festival."
He is also looking forward to meeting other producers from abroad, and hopes to find
renewed inspiration to carry on his work with young producers and actors.
"I am proud of being an old film maker. I will strive to help the rebirth of
Khmer cinema until my death."