'We Don't Have a Film Industry'
Andrew Nette - Newsmekong*
PHNOM PENH, Oct 6 (IPS) - Internationally acclaimed director Rithy Panh remembers 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 not like the situation now, and we used to go to the films all the time. Western, Indian and Khmer pictures, I loved them all."
The director, whose most recent film is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’s novel, ‘The Sea Wall’, responds bluntly to a question about the health of Cambodia’s film industry: "I think the situation today is that 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. There is no film industry in the way there is in the West."
After being devastated by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s film industry enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the eighties and early nineties, only to be demolished again by rising production costs, the availability of cheap DVD copies and widespread cinema closures.
"The situation now is parlous," says Matthew Robinson, executive producer of Khmer Mekong Films, a local film production house. "Most people have turned to making cheap karaoke spots for TV-- either that or poor quality horror films, because they are cheaper and more popular."
Documentary films were shot in Cambodia by foreign filmmakers as early as the 1920s. Silent films, locally produced by Cambodian directors trained in France, first appeared in the fifties.
As part of the post-independence renaissance in the arts and culture encouraged by the country’s monarch King Norodom Sihanouk, hundreds of Cambodian films were made in the sixties and early seventies.
Movie production companies opened their doors and cinemas were built across the country. Encouraged by the relative cheap cost of tickets, people flocked to see European and locally-made films.
The Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975 brought an abrupt end to this. Most of the country’s actors and directors were killed. Negatives and prints of films were destroyed or went missing.
With the exception of a few crude propaganda pieces, the Khmer Rouge produced no cinema.
After the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in early 1979, cinemas began to re-open and production companies re-emerged and were soon importing films.
"After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, many people flocked to the cinema," recalls Kong Kantara, director of the Cinema and Cultural Diffusion Department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art. "There were no Khmer films so we brought them from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Vietnam."
"It was not unusual to see up to 800 people a day in one cinema alone, no matter what they showed," recalls Tom Som, a young director with Khmer Mekong Films
"At the time there was no TV, no cable and no competition," says Kantara.
The introduction of VCRs, video cameras and taped foreign TV shows in the early nineties led to a major decline in ticket sales, resulting in the closure of many cinemas.
In the mid-sixties, Phnom Penh had more than 30 cinemas. According to Robinson there are now three. Admission prices are high by local standards, at one US dollar per ticket. A few more cinemas are located in large provincial capitals such as Battambang and Siem Reap.
"There is simply nowhere for the limited product that is produced to be shown," says Robinson. "The property boom has meant cinema owners can make more selling or renting out their venues as casinos or restaurants."
"If cinema owners responded by making their cinemas better, they could fight back. But they do not have that type of investment and to be honest, they don’t have the films."
Although the exact number is hard to pin down, most industry observers agree that only a fraction of the movie production houses existing in the mid-nineties still operate today.
Most of these churn out a steady stream of poorly made and scripted horror films and slapstick comedies, which are shot on a low budget, including dubbing the sound after the film has been shot because it is cheaper and faster.
Lack of trained crews and equipment is another problem.
"A lot of people think making a film is buying a camera and putting people in front of it," says Robinson. "They do not think about the story, the script or the production values."
The almost non-existent enforcement of copyright and intellectual property laws further discourages investment in films."Now you make a film, release it and two days later, it is in the markets, copied and being sold," says Panh. "Copyright is a vital issue and if we do not deal with this it will destroy the industry."
Panh is Cambodian born but was trained in France, where he escaped after his family members were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.
His most famous film, ‘Rice People (1994)’, depicts the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in rural Cambodia. It was entered in the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was the first Cambodian film to be submitted for an Oscar.
His other films include ‘One Evening After the War ‘(1998) and ‘The Burnt Theatre’ (2005). All were co-produced with European companies that provided the vast bulk of financing. ‘The Sea Wall’, which Panh finished shooting late last year in the southern port city of Sihanoukville, is set in Cambodia during the French colonial era in the 1930s, just as the first signs of revolution were starting to appear in the countryside.
‘ScreenDaily.com’ has compared Catherine Deneuve’s portrait of a French landowner in French-occupied Vietnam with Regis Garnier’s ‘Indochine’, but much grittier.
"We use film like you go and buy a hamburger," says Panh. "We have to educate young people to love cinema but for this to work, we also need to produce better films."
Although it has the same aim, Khmer Mekong Films sees itself as filling a different niche to that occupied by Panh’s complex, European-style art house pieces.
Its first film, ‘Staying Single When’ (2007) is a romantic comedy about a man trying to find a wife in Cambodia. It enjoyed a four-week cinema run and is shown regularly on state TV.
Robinson describes the company’s current project, ‘Heart Talk’, as a ‘Hitchcock-like thriller’ involving three young women working in a Phnom Penh radio station. It is slated for local release in November.
A former executive producer for the top-rated British drama ‘East Enders,’ Robinson came to Cambodia earlier this decade on a three-year contract with BBC World Service Trust, the charitable arm of the BBC.
He hopes Khmer Mekong Films will play a key role in increasing the skills base of the local industry, both to make better films and lure international crews to shoot in Cambodia.
"I think this place is ripe to be discovered," Robinson says of Cambodia. "There are beautiful locations and beautiful people. The trouble is that until the skills base increases, they (international directors) will bring their own crew and use Khmers only for the lower end jobs like extras and drivers."
Improving the quality of the kingdom’s film and television industry is also a priority of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, which is seeking investors to establish Cambodia’s first movie studio.
(*This story was written for the Imaging Our Mekong Programme coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific)