APPROACHING A NICHE: DOCUMENTARIES IN CAMBODIA
“Cambodians don’t like documentaries. Here, it’s only about entertainment.” This is what local filmmakers and TV producers told me when I opened Cambodia’s first independent media and art center Meta House in the capital, Phnom Penh, in early 2007; an attempt to contribute to the country’s cultural reawakening. Cambodia had just completed the first decade of peace after almost 30 years of civil war and Pol Pot’s genocide. I had learned that the local film industry was extinguished when the Khmer Rouge took power, in 1975. It enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the 1980s and early 1990s - only to be demolished again by rising production costs, the availability of cheap DVD copies and widespread cinema closures.
When I started my art-house-cinema, I was only familiar with the work of French-trained director Rithy Panh. He had escaped Cambodia after seeing his family die on the “Killing Fields”. His docudrama RICE PEOPLE was in competition at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. His later works include the critically acclaimed 2003 documentary S21 – THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE about the Tuol Sleng torture prison, which won him the European Film Prize. In December 2006, Rithy Panh established the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture. The overriding purpose is to collect (moving) images and sounds of the Cambodian memory and to make them available to a wide public. There, everybody can delve into Cambodian film history free of charge.
As long as Cambodia was a part of colonial Indochina, only the French settlers made films in the country—usually documentary films about their own act ivities. The first Cambodian-made films were made in the 1950s by filmmakers who had studied overseas. The United States Information Service held training workshops during this era and provided equipment as well. One film from this time was FOOTPRINTS OF THE HUNTER, made by off-duty Cambodian military personnel using American equipment and containing footage of Cambodian hill tribes. Film experts also acknowledge the influential role of French film director Marcel Camus (ORFEU NEGRO), who shot the film BIRD OF PARADISE in Cambodia with an exclusively local cast in 1961.
In the mid-1960s, directors began making melodramas and comedies, but the great majority of films in this period were set in a fantastic past. Out of more than 400 films, which were produced during Cambodian cinema’s halcyon days, only 35 survived. They have been copied over the years from video to VCD and sold in the Cambodian communities in the diaspora. Cambodia’s former ruler, the late King Norodom Sihanouk, is still remembered as one of the most productive film directors in Asia. Before being deposed in a coup in 1970, he shot eight feature films and a number of documentaries.
On 17 April 1975, the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and within a few days drove out the entire population. The great majority of Cambodians were forced to work in collective agriculture. Many actors, directors, musicians, other artists, and intellectuals were among the approximately two million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Others left the country and never came back.
In a recent interview with journalist Andrew Nette, Rithy Panh remembered how, as young boy in pre-war Phnom Penh, cinema played a central role in his family life.
"When I was young we had so many cinemas … we used to go to the films all the time…” To a question about the health of today’s local film industry Rithy Panh responded: "We do not have a film industry. We have an entertainment industry. Most of the production is karaoke, soap opera and TV drama. Either that or there are institutional films made by NGOs and the like.”
Unfavorable production conditions, non-availability of local funding, lack of trained crews and equipment are cited as the main obstacles. The almost non-existent enforcement of copyright and intellectual property laws further discourages investment in films. This was also laid out by German media manager Kirstin Wille in her master thesis “Film Production in Cambodia” (2009, Schriftenreihe der Thüringisch-Kambodschanischen Gesellschaft). Up until now, there is no designated film school or university where Cambodians can learn how to produce or direct documentaries. Moreover, local TV stations don’t air documentaries – with the exception of the state channel TVK, which is not very popular with the broader public. To fill these gaps, a small number of institutions offer training to interested youth.
From 2005, Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Pederick conducted a workshop project for indigenous youth from Rattanakiri. Young Tampeun, Jarai and Kreung produced testimonial-like short docus in indigenous languages about culture, community and the essential connection between the indigenous people of Ratanakiri & the land. FOREST MOUNTAIN VOICES won the Cinemekong Festival at the French Cultural Center in 2007. Indigenous filmmaker Naung Sam Oueng, who was part of this project, followed up with the documentaries FOREST IS OUR LIFE and AWAY FROM HOME. The latter was co-directed by Om Hong Kiry.
The NGO “Supporting Cambodian Youth” trains volunteers from different Phnom Penh high schools to produce TV features for youth programs, as well narrated documentaries for international partners such as OXFAM and UNICEF. Cambodian film maker Koam Chanrasmey participated in this program, before he teamed up with his former Australian teacher Martin Potter to also investigate land issues in the North-Eastern province of Ratanakiri for the 2011 documentary project BANLUNG: BIG STORIES, SMALL TOWN. Land conflict and deforestation are controversial and emotive issues in Cambodia. In 2007, Om Kim Sour’s little-known documentary TOMORROW (produced by the NGO “Women’s Media Center) was banned from TV broadcasting just for mentioning that these problems exist.
Since 2001, the Department of Media and Communication (DMC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) focuses on the education of journalists. In their sixth semester, students are given the chance to produce a documentary with guidance from foreign lecturers. Resulting films have been compiled on DVDs. Students screen their films at Meta House, at Bophana Center and at the Cambodian International Film Festival, which celebrated its first edition in the year 2010. The children aid organizations “Pour Sourir d’ Enfant” (PSE) and Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) are currently running film classes for youth from difficult upbringings. The latter is founded by former US film executive Scott Neeson.
In April 2009 Meta House opened a masters class for Khmer filmmakers: The M.E.T.A program (Media Education and Training Academy) is a unique "on-the-job" training, funded by the German "Goethe-Institut". So far, over 100 students have produced more than 30 documentaries. FOUR SHORTS FROM THE GARMENT INDUSTRY, THE PEPPERFIELDS, 25 FRAMES TO MOVE as well as Neang Kavich’s SMOT (produced by Davy Chou) have been screened at various international film festivals. In 2013, In 2013, Sao Sopheak’s documentary TWO GIRLS AGAINST THE RAIN about a lesbian couple was admitted to the “Panorama”-section of the Berlin International Film Fest “Berlinale”.
The Cambodia Film Commission (CFC) has developed its cinema training program, the "CFC Film Lab". In 2010, five young Cambodian directors (Yos Katank, Chan Lida, Neang Kavich, Chhoun Sarin and Sao Sopheak) had the chance to learn from Rithy Panh. Their resulting short documentaries (A SCALE BOY, A PEDAL MAN, I CAN BE WHO I AM, MY YESTERDAY NIGHT, A BLURRED WAY OF LIFE) follow various protagonists in Phnom Penh. Rithy Panh / Bophana continued to support aspiring filmmakers by producing a number of interesting and successful projects. French-Cambodian filmmaker Guillaume Suon followed the daughter of a Khmer-Rouge-victim for his compelling docu ABOUT MY FATHER, which was screened at the World Cinema Pavilion, Cannes Festival 2010 and many other festivals. Chan Lida and Guillaume Suon won the prize for the best Mid Length Documentary at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) for their documentary RED WEDDING, which shows lasting scars of forced marriages under Khmer Rouge. Neang Kavich’s first long format WHERE I GO about a Cambodian-African teenager was premiered at the Asian Film Festival 2012 in Vesoul/France.
Rithy Panh also co-produced Davy Chou’s first long-format GOLDEN SLUMBERS, which amazed cinema goers at Berlinale 2012. The young French-Cambodian filmmaker chronicles the “Golden Age” of Cambodian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. The story is told through the recollections of three film directors and one of the period’s famed actresses, Dy Saveth. Davy Chou’s grandfather, Van Chann, once was a famed Cambodian movie producer. At the end of the last decade, his grandson Davy visited Cambodia for the first time. He held a series of workshops at Phnom Penh universities, which resulted not only in the feature film production TWIN DIAMONDS, but also in the founding of the Cambodian film collective 4K (“Cambodian Youth, Cambodian Films”). Chou’s former students continue to produce short films, as well as organizing the annual “Film Camp” with over 800 visitors.
Cambodian-American female filmmaker Kalyanee Mam is another gifted member of the diaspora, who pleases international audiences and critics alike. After fleeing to the United States in 1981, the Yale and UCLA law graduate became the cinematographer and associate producer for Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning 2011 documentary “Inside Job”. In 2013, she won the 'World Cinema Grand Jury Prize' at Sundance Film Festival for documentary A RIVER CHANGES ITS COURSE. It focuses on the lives of three families in different parts of the country, each of them finding it increasingly hard to live off the land (or water) as corporate development creeps up on them.
While Kalyanee’s film was screened a few times in Phnom Penh and other provincial towns by its producer “Documentation Center of Cambodia” in 2012, another locally produced “docbuster” is still waiting for its official theatrical release. ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE by Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath and his English co-director Rob Lemkin received 25 international awards so far, including the 2010 Sundance Film Festival World Jury Special Prize. It depicts the ten year quest of Thet Sambath to find truth and closure in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. In July 2010 the Cambodian government declined to give the film a permit for distribution in Cambodia.
To further strengthen Cambodia’s blossoming documentary film scene, it is of highest importance that its products find a local audience. Up until today, Meta House, Bophana Center and the French Institute remain (almost) the only spaces in Cambodia, where all the above mentioned films are screened. All stakeholders including the relevant governmental bodies must work together to create a local market with local funding and more local outlets in order to create incentives for young filmmakers, who are in dire need of budgets to realize their ideas. On the other hand, these filmmakers have to learn to become entrepreneurs by setting up their own production companies and to pitch for regional or international funding. There can be stunning progress when the right kind of competition is unleashed...
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