Cambodia’s first psychological thriller is being shot in the capital. In The Mind Cage, Indian director Amit Dubey takes an unflinching look at the treatment of the mentally ill inside the Kingdom
The White Building was transformed into a film set this Wednesday as the crew of the Kingdom’s first self-proclaimed psychological thriller initiated production.
As filming began, actor Keo Ratha gazed stoically past the camera as he smoked a cigarette on an outdoor stairwell.
Dressed in business attire, the shot aimed to establish the character of the modern psychiatrist who passionately disapproves of the often brutal approaches to mental health in rural Cambodia.
The doctor’s confrontation with tradition, however, incurs the wrath of a rural healer who locks his patients in cages.
“His happy family disintegrates because he messed with the wrong guy,” said Indian director Amit Dubey, who wrote the script.
The result is a face-off of modern science versus traditional methods in a cinematic feature inspired by the real-life plight of the Kingdom’s mentally ill.
The man behind the camera said he was excited to produce “another first” for Khmer cinema by replacing the typical supernatural horror story with a thriller grounded in reality.
Dubey said The Mind Cage - which features an all-Khmer cast and was shot on a budget of about $120,000 raised from investors, family and friends - aims to introduce Cambodian audiences to the thriller genre without featuring the omnipresent ghost villains of the Kingdom’s cinema.
“I like psychological trillers, where the tensions are high because of humans and not ghosts,” said Dubey.
The movie will include violent depictions of the mistreatment of the mentally ill, which Dubey said he had himself encountered in the Kingdom’s countryside while doing contract work for NGOs.
“That’s actually the reality here – if somebody has a problem, they’re hearing voices, people say they are crazy and the easier option is to lock them up,” he said, adding that he was inspired to write the script after befriending a Cambodian psychiatrist working to change perceptions.
“There’s not proper treatment methods available,” added Dubey.
Treatment of the mentally ill in Cambodia has long come under scrutiny from mental health experts, with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation Cambodia having initiated funding for its “Operation Unchained” project earlier this year.
In July, a man was reportedly chained by his family in Kampot after burning down a neighbour’s house, while human rights group Licadho announced in January that it would investigate a Svay Rieng man whose neighbours said had been chained for two years at home due to his sporadic acts of violence.
More benign, but not necessarily effective, treatment takes place at pagodas, where monks may provide social support while treating the disorders as supernatural phenomena.
Dubey stressed, however, that the film won’t be a documentary about mental illness.
“It’s not really a documentary with a message, but I do want to have shades of reality at the same time while we create fiction,” he said.
He emphasised that he didn’t want his film to condemn traditional treatment methods.
“There’s no good or bad in this, there’s valid treatment in each approach, but I don’t intend to show that this is the right way or the wrong way.”
He added that he would not, however, sugar coat the human suffering inflicted by traditional treatment.
“There’s going to be someone hanging from a tree, locked inside the cage,” he said.
While mental illness will be prominently featured, the film’s narrative arch will consist of the personal conflict between the psychiatrist and the traditional healer.
The deteriorating relationship, said Dubey, will be emphasised by transitioning the colour palate from “a warm happy feel” to a “harsh and cold” tone.
He added that he also planned to exploit the ongoing rainy season to add mood to his movie.
“I think we can use rain to our advantage – the benefit of our small cameras is that you can put it under an umbrella or in a car,” he said.
Much of the film will take place in Phnom Penh. Other scenes will take place at a hospital in Takhmao that, according to Dubey, served as a prison for the mentally ill under the Khmer Rouge.
“It’s an old hospital, some of it is being used and some of it is not, so it gives it more authenticity,” he said, adding that a large bamboo cage constructed by the cast will house the patients in the film.
While a release date has not yet been set, Dubey said he intends to submit the movie to the film festival circuit. It will be a challenge, he said, as movies made for the Cambodian market rarely get recognition.
“There’s limited options, but people are excited to be part of this,” Dubey said, adding that he was excited to introduce Cambodia to a new filmic genre.
“It still has a long way to go, but people are starting to do stuff and it’s pretty encouraging. I like the passion and commitment of some of the people,” he said.