With three feature films at this year’s Cambodia International Film Festival, the Buddhist mountain Kingdom of Bhutan this week gets a rare moment in the spotlight for Phnom Penh’s audiences.
In town for the screenings, actor Loday Chophel breaks into a smile when asked how he came to play the leading role in The Prophecy, one of just a handful of movies produced by his country each year.
“Can I tell you?” he asks tentatively before launching into an explanation.
Born in an eastern roadside village called Wamrong, consisting of no more than 15 houses perched on a mountainside, the 38-year-old recalls that there was just one television set in the whole town, at a local convenience store.
“I would go sneak in and watch films,” he says. TV and film was a novelty at the time. The medium, as well as the internet, had only just arrived to the country – which has long sought to shield itself from external influence in the name of cultural preservation – when Chophel was a boy.
“After high school I opened up to my family that I wanted to go to film school. But it was a really new thing, so they thought it was just child talk – that I was in a fantasy world,” he says.
So instead he was sent to Delhi, in India, for university, which he hardly attended and ultimately dropped out.
Back home, he went to work in the service industry. Employed at a fancy resort, he would write screenplays in his spare time, eventually securing sponsorship to go back to India, this time to the Asian Academy of Film & Television in Noida, where he graduated at the top of his class in 2009.
He soon joined the ranks of Bhutan’s nascent film scene, working on a national TV series in 2011.
The community of filmmakers, he says, is small enough that everyone knows each other. He’s friends with the directors of the two other features screened at the festival – Norbu, My Beloved Yak and Kushuthara, Pattern of Love. Just as he is both lead actor and editor for The Prophecy, it’s common to wear many hats.
Through film, he says, Bhutan can not only present itself to the world, but also present its perspective, and its values – which with the arrival of film, television and the Internet can no longer be protected by a natural barrier of mountains alone.
“Culture becomes a tool for self-identity, like the landscape … [but] the process of evolution cannot be stopped,” he says. When it comes to development, he notes “we are not too rushed”.
“If you rush, you overlook and you don’t see the negativity until the last stage, for example with the environment,” he said.
Often described as a highly religious society, Chophel says it would be apt to say the younger generations are more spiritual than religiously dogmatic, and Buddhist teachings have encouraged open and free thought.
“It’s always been this way . . . The youth is allowed to question, encouraged to question . . . Your teacher is a guide and you can take the teaching that suits you,” he says.
But the monkhood is also a key element of the cinema community. The Prophecy was directed and produced by Zuri Rinpoche, himself a monk of considerable status.
The film provides a cinematic tour of the country. Having been filmed in the east, north, centre and west, it covers “70 percent” of the nation’s landscape, Chophel says. But it also explores and interrogates social values, raising questions about notions of gender equality in Bhutan – such as how reincarnation stories favour men over women.
“It’s about universal acceptance,” he says. “It’s a very simple story.”
The Prophecy will be presented by Loday Chophel at 3pm today at the Major Cineplex in Aeon Mall. It will screen again there at 4:30pm on Friday. Khushuthara, Pattern of Love screens at 10am on Saturday at the Bophana Center and on Thursday at 2:15pm at the French Institute, which will also screen shorts from Bhutan at 8:15pm. Norbu,
My Beloved Yak screens on Friday at 4pm at the Major Cineplex in Sorya Mall and again at 11:05am Saturday at Legend Cinema at TK Avenue.
Read our full guide to the festival's screenings here