Once vibrant and led by no less than the country’s own cinema obsessed king Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s long dormant film industry is experiencing a revival.
Efforts to inspire a new generation of local filmmakers are beginning to bear fruit while plenty of foreign filmmakers are turning their attention to Cambodian subjects.
It also helps to have Hollywood take notice... and this year Angelina Jolie-Pitt helped draw attention by serving as honorary president.
Joined by Cambodia’s most famous director, Rithy Panh, and two of his protégés, Jolie-Pitt moderated an open workshop on filmmaking at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk theatre.
“This country changed my life,” she tells the audience before predicting that an adaptation of Luong Ung’s autobiography First They Killed My Father that she is currently directing with Panh as producer will “show people on a very large scale what Cambodian filmmaking can be.”
Jolie-Pitt fell in love with the country after filming Tomb Raider here 15 years ago, adopted a Cambodian son, launched a string of philanthropic projects and was awarded citizenship.
Her involvement in the festival as honorary president is “massive” says Cambodian-Australian filmmaker Chhorn Bunhom, whose documentary Camp 32 is one of the highlights of CIFF.
“I’ve been here quite a while and it’s grown from like a mushroom to something gigantic now,” he says.
“I noticed that in the press that all of a sudden it means something to be accepted into the Cambodian film festival now and I noticed that by being here now that our film is being offered other places as well.”
Recounting Khmer Rouge history
As a TV Manager of the immensely popular show Loy 9, a youth targeted “edutainment” program backed by the BBC that stormed Cambodian audiences with ratings in excess of 2 million viewers per week, Bunhom has had the opportunity to watch and mentor some of the country’s exciting new talent.
Bunhom’s film traces his own escape from a horrific yet largely forgotten Khmer Rouge labour camp aged six. It’s clear that for both Bunhom and his family the production of the film was at times deeply traumatic.
Despite this, he pushed forward, spurred by the knowledge that if he didn’t make the film his tormentors would have, in a sense, won a victory by silencing him.
Taking ownership of a history and culture that others have tried to deny people is, Bunhom believes, a powerful motivation behind many of Cambodia’s creative voices, young and old.
“Well I think there’s a movement now because you know like we have this horrific time in the Khmer Rouge time and then five years ago I think there was something changed psychologically in the Cambodian psyche,” he says.
“And that was that we just don’t want to be known by our horror anymore but we want to be known by our arts”.
Highlighting women's voices
For 26-year-old director Ngoeum Phally, filmmaking provides her an avenue to tackle another type of suppression – that of female voices in a culture that has traditionally mandated that women be excluded from her choice of profession.
Sitting next to Jolie-Pitt at the workshop, she told the audience that she was challenging her own family’s stereotype of what professions were suitable to her as a woman.
“Being a documentary filmmaker I was told that it’s not a girl’s job and I have to do the heavy work like a man and that I have to travel a lot having no time for home and at the same time I have to protect the image of the family,” she told the audience.
Phally has worked on more than half a dozen films and lists amongst her credits co-writer for the critically acclaimed documentary The Storm Makers, which has been broadcast by French-German network ARTE and the United States’ PBS.
Her film Guide Boy, a short that looks into the life of a 12-year-old who works as a tour guide to support his father, is featured at this years’ festival.
Building local film scene
Despite the growing stocks of young filmmakers here though, locally directed films remain scarce among the more than 130 featured in 2015, even though many take Cambodian subjects as their focus.
Festival director Cedric Eloy says the capacity of the local filmmakers has increased dramatically since the festival began in 2010 but that the next step is to help them aim to make more ambitious productions.
“It’s really to make filmmakers understand here that it is made for the industry, they should use the festival to watch some films, to meet some people, to learn and it’s the primary goal of the festival, even before satisfying an audience,” he says.
“I mean these guys are going to go on more ambitious projects in the next few years and you will see documentaries made by these guys with a good international level because they’ve been learning documentary over the last year.”