One of the cinemas built during the “golden era” of Phnom Penh cinema is now a slum. In the auditorium where once moviegoers smoked and jostled, hundreds now live in squalor. Other theaters have been torn down or changed into snooker halls and karaoke bars. These relics stand as testament to a time when local cinema thrived. For a long while, the repurposed buildings were the only signs that it ever even existed.
In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge ushered in an era of cultural desertification when they enslaved the country, targeting actors, musicians and intellectuals for execution. Now, 40 years on, the industry is showing signs of life. Over the past few years, local productions – with overseas assistance – have reached the international stage for the first time. In March last year, the country’s best director went to the Academy Awards. Films won at Venice, Busan and Tokyo. In February, Cambodians on shoestring budgets dominated the Asian wing of the world’s biggest short film festival for a second year.
“You put down a stone, and other people will construct a house,” said filmmaker Rithy Panh, whose The Missing Picture, a Khmer Rouge history told through clay figures, earned him an Academy Awards nod. He missed out in Hollywood but considers the nomination a win for the industry at home. “I think that in three years, some Cambodian films will make a big surprise in the market,” he said in his office last year. “They are now here. They start now.”
Cambodia, a small country with a culture dating back to the Angkor civilization, has an enduring cinematic legacy. From 1960 until 1975, hundreds of movies were made. Even the former king Norodom Sihanouk was a filmmaker. The Khmer Rouge put a stop to all that. The only footage that came out of the era that followed was communist propaganda. After the regime was toppled in 1979, revival was slow. Imported horror flicks and romantic comedies ruled. On any given week, posters for Thai ghost movies are plastered around Phnom Penh.
“Before 1975, Cambodian films were very famous and there were a lot of producers, filmmakers, actors and actresses,” said Dy Saveth, one of the surviving pre-Khmer Rouge stars. “Nowadays some films are copied from others overseas.”
Industry insiders say that is changing. As well as Panh’s global hit, releases in the past two years have included a slick heist comedy, the country’s first zombie film, a martial arts flick, and well-received documentaries. The Last Reel, which follows a young woman who discovers her mousy mother (Saveth) was a 1960s actress, prompted The Hollywood Reporter to declare in October that “Cambodian cinema’s resurgence as a filmmaking force continues apace.” The Cambodian-Australian production won Kulikar Sotho the “Spirit of Asia” award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. “The Missing Picture helped put Cambodian cinema back on the map,” the director wrote in an email. “Cambodian filmmakers have witnessed what a good film can do for you as a filmmaker and as a nation. Cambodia has so many stories to tell.”
Cedric Eloy of the Cambodian Film Commission, believes local tastes are diversifying. “Genre movies have long been limited to ghost movies or comedies but there is a thirst for other genres like period films, police or gangster stories or fighting movies,” Eloy wrote in an email. Films made today would not have been possible five years ago, he added. Part of that is down to increased technical expertise. “Twenty years ago, there were no skilled people to make the movies you can make today,” said Jimmy Henderson, the director behind Cambodian-Italian martial arts movie Hanuman, which arrived in theaters last month. “Also the country was still fresh from war and priorities were different,” he wrote in an email.
Among the young generation today, there’s no shortage of passion, with directors making use of cheap technology and online crowd-funding. This week, a short film project by Kavich Neang was fully funded in less than 10 hours through indiegogo.com. Another young short filmmaker, Ly Polen, won Tropfest Southeast Asia in February with his crowd-funded entry Colourful Knots. Polen, who is 25, started out taking video on his cell phone. “When you have little money but dream to make a film with high production values… you need to have a free crew, free cast and free equipment at least – or try to make something simple,” he wrote in an email. “Do not forget that the simplicity has its beauty.”
Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia.