A new government drive to bolster Cambodia's ailing film industry aims
to increase local output by luring large foreign productions to shoot -
and spend - in the Kingdom
A promotional poster for Crocodile Hunter, one of the most commercially successful Cambodian films in recent memory - and one of the few not available on DVD.
IN the face of rapidly falling film production - only 10 films have been made so far this year compared with 61 in 2006 - the government has launched a major drive to bolster the domestic film industry and market the Kingdom as an attractive location for foreign production teams.
"In neighbouring countries, local film producers were the key to founding a successful domestic cinema industry, but in Cambodia the government wants to be the one to give an impulse to the creation of this industry," said Som Sokun, head of the Cinema Department in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Lack of money, technicians and human resources are blamed for the dismal state of Cambodian cinema. And it is not just quantity that is falling off: Quality, too, is a huge problem. At the third national film video festival in January this year, the Cambodian jury said that all the films were too poor to warrant either a first or a second prize.
"We have to create a generation that will be able to shoot its own images on its own country," said Oscar-winning Franco-Cambodian director Rithy Panh.
"The less you make, the more you are crushed. We have to try our luck."
He urged the government to support training projects to develop young talent, but said
that increased contact with foreign production teams could also be a huge benefit.
The fact that Cambodia has welcomed at least one large-scale film per year in recent years has inspired the government to see the potential of film, Rithy Panh said.
"If culture has an economic dimension, people will look at it with more interest," he added.
To this end, the Culture Ministry recently founded the Cambodian Film Commission, designed to boost the domestic film industry and encourage foreign production teams to use Cambodia as a location.
"The government believes that Cambodia has a great potential to attract foreign film crews with its magnificent landscapes," Som Sokun said.
To achieve this, the newly created commission has a budget of US$1 million, to be supplemented by the French Agency for Development, which is providing $1.8 million over four years.
Cinema might be finished in cambodia. we have forgotten the grammar of film.
Som Sokun added that the government is also making an effort to purchase technical equipment and develop specialised training sessions with the help of the Bophana Audiovisual Centre.
Video killed the cinema star
The reality is that many production companies and movie theatres are closing as they simply cannot make ends meet - especially in a country where DVD pirating is so common.
Only two movie theatres remain open in Phnom Penh, showing a small number or Cambodian-made films interspersed with Thai and Korean horror flicks.
The only Cambodian film that cannot be found on DVD is the super-protected Crocodile Hunter, written and directed by Mao Ayuth.
Released in 2005, this film tells the story of a young man who seeks revenge for villagers killed by a crocodile. Cambodian crooner Preap Sovath plays the hero - his popularity, combined with the comic dialogue of the film, ensured that it was a runaway success at the box office.
Indeed, the film was by far the most popular new Cambodian release in the last three years.
As there are no official data on the number of ticket sales, producers are the only ones who really know how successful a film is.
The Killing Phone, a Cambodian remake of a Thai horror movie, ran for six weeks in 2006 and generated $10,000 in profits - a huge success for Cambodia.
Despite this, the film's 70 year-old producer Yvon Hem, a former director, has walked away from filmmaking.
"Art is very important but we are too poor to create," he said. "Cinema might be finished in Cambodia. We have forgotten the grammar of film. We know nothing anymore."
Writing a new script
For many other directors the main problem today is the lack of writers who have ideas and are able to tell a story with a driving vision. For Matthew Robinson, founder of Khmer Mekong Films (KMF), the lack of structure is upsetting.
A Cambodian film crew shoot footage outside Phnom Penh's Royal Palace. Film production has dropped off dramatically from 61 films in 2006 to just 10 this year.
"There is no journey in the film," he said. "Sometimes you can't even say who the hero is. And they [Cambodian filmmakers] do not think about the genre. In their defence, there is no literature: Where are the novels? What do they read? What do they watch?"
But storytelling is the key to making money from movies, and it's a vicious cycle: "If you have a good story, you can draw back your money," said Dany Ly, deputy director of the government's Cinema Department.
"But today the budget of a whole Cambodian film is equal to one week's expenditure on a big foreign production."
Despite the difficulties, some organisations are working to strengthen cinema in Cambodia. Staying Single When, a romantic comedy produced by KMF last year, was a production that aimed to train Cambodians to make a good film and to show it at international festivals.
The story of a young manager looking for a wife and realising that the girl he loves is under his nose but unavailable was well received by audiences. This year, KMF worked on Heart Talk, a contemporary thriller.
Som Sokun said he hoped the founding of the film commission and an injection of foreign funds would put Cambodian cinema back on the map.
"It is time to do something. I know Cambodians who have money and who would be ready to invest if there was good human resources and real scriptwriters," Som Sokun told the Post.