Pnomh Phen: Cambodian Film Making Challenges

Over a period of fifteen years through 1975, known as the golden age of the Khmer cinema, Cambodia produced almost 400 films.  Under the four year terror regime of the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian film industry and most of its worker were terminated with only 30 films left intact.  Laboratories, films, and theatres were destroyed; actors and directors slaughtered. Identified as ‘New People’ urban dwellers were considered spoiled by their culture and life styles inferior to the old people, the peasants working the land. As one Khmer Rouge official put it, if all the New People were killed, no loss for Cambodia would result. Very few film professionals were able to leave the country. Others lived underground, like the noted Mao Ayuth, disguising their professional background for fear of being murdered.

After the Khmer Rouge regime fell the film business returned with mostly horror movies during the 80s featuring many low cost productions. A large number of local productions companies were established and many theaters in Pnomh Penh opened again. Themes were frequently tied to ghost horror stories, following a Cambodian cultural dictum that those who are not buried properly become ghosts, a story telling tradition that still persists today. Television, video cassettes with foreign films, TV programs, and the mid 90s edicts by the government, which curtailed film productions which did not conform to Cambodia’s culture and tradition, stalled the rise of the local film industry. Today, access to a growing number of television channels, cheap DVDs with pirated films, and cable programming   continue to reduce the theatrical audience for films. The crisis of Cambodian filmmaking continues with a negligible market, a small local audience, and no foreign outlets. Most film productions still have low budgets in the $30,000 range and score low on the quality scale.

No systematic training programs exist, though the establishment of a film school as part of the Royal University of Fine Arts is under discussion. Most Cambodian film makers are trained in countries like Korea or pick up skills in workshops run by the Bophana Center, the German Meta House, or other NGOs educating new film makers. Some training programs are carried out by the Cambodia Film Commission as supported by the French Development Agency. Specifically older film professionals note deficiencies in the areas of acting, directing and storytelling. Mao Ayuth, who currently serves as a Secretary of State in the Ministry of Information, suggests that writers frequently lack the training or experience for writing good scripts. Mao criticizes the mindless copying of story lines of foreign films by Cambodian film makers. Younger film professionals, including numerous expats, have a more optimistic view and consider the problems of Cambodian film making a generational one, after all, the Khmer Rouge wiped out the film industry.

Film makers are reluctant to produce because there are few if any financial benefits and they have to cover all production costs.  Copyright laws are not enforced and DVDs of films, documentaries, and television programs, can be bought for as little as one dollar.  Local distribution of films is limited and revenues through theatrical receipts are minimal.  In the capital Pnomh Phen there are now only two theaters left, playing feature films and in all of Cambodia there are only 10 theaters showing film. The capital alone had in excess of 30 theaters in the early 70’s.  There are, however, a few screening rooms provided by foreign NGOs such as the Meta House. According to the exhibitors, it is cheaper to buy Thai or foreign films than Cambodian productions.

As a result, only a few new Cambodian films were produced during the last few years. The 2009 feature WHO AM I about a lesbian love affair and the thriller VANISHED were only shown in three cinemas for a total audience of about 30,000. Last year a new feature film was released KILES, with a script by Mao Ayuth, and the internationally acclaimed feature length documentary ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE by Seth Sambath and Rob Lemkin. There is no direct financial support for the film makers from Cambodian public sources. Allocations in the culture sector are determined by developmental and political consideration. As Som Sokun (Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts) made it clear, the strengthening of Cambodian infrastructure is more important than making movies. It is certainly easier to create political funding interest for the classical Cambodian art, such as dance, than for audio visual projects. Thus, most Cambodian film makers produce shorts or programs for television.

Emphasis by governmental agencies such as the Film Commission, the Department of Information and the Ministry of Culture, focus on fostering international film productions in Cambodia ,which can also serve as training grounds for Cambodia film makers.  To date, only basic cinema equipment and film technicians are available to foreign production companies. Sophisticated production equipment has to be shipped in from Thailand and key technicians need to be supplied by the producers. Cambodia has proven very attractive as a film location in spite of the equipment, staffing and potential censorship problems. It offers a low wage structure, inexpensive accommodations, and a large number of striking tropical, mountain, and coastal locations. Cambodia also has attractive urban venues which are not yet spoiled by ‘over’ development, and provides intriguing exotic backgrounds. Equally important, the Cambodians are a friendly accommodating people and antagonisms towards Western foreigners are virtually absent. Cambodia has become desirable for foreign film makers thanks to the success of films like THE KILLING FIELDS (1984), LARA CROFT (2001), CITY OF GHOSTS (2002), TWO BROTHERS (2003), THE TIGER EMPIRE (2005), SEASON OF RAIN (2007), SAME BUT DIFFERENT (2010). Cedric Eloy, who heads the Film Commission, claims that six feature films have been shot in Cambodia since late 2010 and there have been press reports that Oliver Stone and Stephen Spielberg were location scouting in Cambodia. Several Cambodian companies specialize in assisting foreign film productions; such as Khmer Mekong Films, started by a former BBC executive, or the more established Hanuman Films Company which serviced LARA CROFT. Bophana Production has also provided production services, most recently for films like SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT, THE CATCH, EMPIRE OF THE TIGER, HOLY LOLA, and others.

Foreign film makers must show great sensitivity to the portrayal of Cambodia and its people. From Mao Ayuth’ perspective foreign film makers are frequently too negative.  Permission to film in Cambodia can be denied unless the script is changed to delete a negative perspective on Cambodia.  There is no official censorship yet scripts need to be approved by officials from the Ministry of Culture. The depiction of Cambodian society is closely is scrutinized as is any criticism of Buddhism. But filmmakers can discuss and adapt their scripts in an approval process which according to Mao Ayut takers only a couple of weeks.  Cedric Eloy suggests that other countries in South-East Asia   exert greater scrutiny for permit approval and points out that scenes of prostitution, corruption, drug abuse, and sexual activities, etc have been depicted in features shot in Cambodia.  The objective of reviewing scripts is to make sure that Khmer culture and Cambodia is shown accurately.

As part of the support structure, film festivals have emerged. The first Cambodia film festival was set up in 2005 with the bulk of programs consisting of local horror films, followed in 2007 by the private sector oriented film festival the CAMBOFEST: Film and Video Festival of Cambodia. That Festival was held in the capital and Siem Riep for an audience consisting to a large extent of foreigners. In November 2010 the first edition of the Cambodia International Film Festival was launched.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent

filmexchange@gmail.com

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