A panel discussion this week featuring acclaimed filmmaker Lord David Puttnam – who produced The Killing Fields in Cambodia in 1984 – raised pertinent questions about the direction that the Kingdom’s film industry is heading, especially with respect to Cambodian representation behind the lens.
Alongside Puttnam were Christopher Rompré, the director of The Man Who Built Cambodia; Nick Ray of Hanuman Films, the production company behind The Last Reel; Sok Visal, the director of Poppy Goes to Hollywood; and Justin Stewart, the CEO of animation studio ithinkasia.
The event was hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce (Lord Puttnam is currently the UK’s trade envoy to Cambodia).
A recurring theme was that technology has removed many obstacles to moviemaking and distribution, especially for those without institutional support or strapped for cash, like young Cambodians.
Puttnam recalled the physical barriers of decades ago, just before he set out to make The Killing Fields.
“In the 1970s, all the obstacles were technological and physical,” Puttnam said. “Ninety percent of those obstacles have been removed, which is quite remarkable.”
“The gap between the eye the filmmaker has and the way that the filmmaker realises it, and the ability to actually get it in front of an audience has been all but dismantled. “I have very little patience now for the people who tell me there are obstacles to making movies.”
Often, the ease of quick distribution means young filmmakers turn first to short films. Ray – filling in for his wife, Sotho Kulikar, the Cambodian director who made The Last Reel – was quick to highlight the importance of short films in developing an industry, and pointed to Cambodia’s success at the Tropfest South East Asia awards over the last two years.
“There’s a generation of young people coming through who are not chained by their past and want to tell stories, and they now have the medium to do it, because in the past, you needed the equipment to do it,” he said.
“Before, you couldn’t sort of come from the White Building, or from the rice fields and become a filmmaker. It was impossible.”
Of course, the composition of the panel – all men, only one of whom was born in the Kingdom – evinced that obstacles still exist to Cambodians directing or producing feature-length films. None of the panelists disagreed on the point that there was plenty of room for foreign assistance.
“I do think you can build the industry off the back of an enormous amount of expat help . . . as long as you’re prepared to invest in ambitious, local people who will learn very, very quickly,” Puttnam said.
Stewart highlighted the importance of foreign co-production to the growth of the industry, especially in animation; Cambodia signed a co-production treaty with France in late 2013 that has led to a number of successful films in the three years since.
For some filmmakers, especially of documentaries, censorship – or the threat of it – could present an obstacle to developing work, or even ideas. But Puttnam was quick to disagree when pressed on the issue.
“It comes with the job,” he said, pointing to Czech cinema in the 1960s, which relied on mocking metaphors of communist bureaucracy, as an example. “What I would say to filmmakers is: ‘Think smart, work harder, go work your way around the problem and stop moaning’,” he added, to applause.
Sok Visal, who works with Cambodian youth in music, dance and film, likewise said he believed creative energy in Cambodia was moving forward rapidly.
“I think the government has a role in trying to boost the industry, but I think the artist . . . should not wait for anybody to do it,” Visal said.
“Young people aren’t waiting for the government.”