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Seasoned Filmmaker Preserve Films for Future Generations

In an exclusive first interview with VOA Khmer at his studio in Montreal, Canada, renowned filmmaker Tea Lim Koun looked back at the Cambodian film industry.
While filmmaker Rithy Panh is putting Cambodia in the Hollywood spotlight with an Oscar-nominated memoir, another Cambodian filmmaker from the 1960s is preserving his work for future generations.

In an exclusive first interview with VOA Khmer at his studio in Montreal, Canada, renowned filmmaker Tea Lim Koun looked back at the Cambodian film industry.

“Back in the 1960s, there were just over 10 movie theaters in Cambodia, and most of them showed foreign movies,” he said. “The Khmer audience also loved to see foreign films. The investors built movie theaters, but they did not invest in the Khmer film industry. Instead they bought foreign films to screen in Cambodia.”

The 79-year-old filmmaker says he was unhappy with what was happening in the industry in those days and decided to jump in the moviemaking business along with the others to reverse the situation. “I did not care about profits,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure my films had high quality to win back the Cambodian people’s hearts.”

His hard work and dedication, alongside other filmmakers like Ly Bun Yim and Ly You Sreang, paid off. Cambodian people began to fall in love with Khmer movies.

Kanya Yap, of Arlington, Va., remembers how much she loved Cambodian movies.

“When I was a teenager, I loved to see Khmer movies,” she told VOA Khmer. “I used to stand on the roadside for the movie truck to go by and give out flyers about new movies.”

Another Arlington resident, Ear Kim Heng, praised the works of the Khmer filmmakers in the 1960s and 70s. “Before the civil war, Khmer movies were so popular,” he said. “People fought to buy tickets. Movies such as ‘The Snake Man’ were very popular. Everyone saw it three or four times.”

Davy Chou is a documentary filmmaker. His film, “The Golden Slumbers,” looks at the Cambodian film industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I used to see the pirated copies of his movies,” he told VOA Khmer. “But when I saw ‘The Snake Man’ and ‘Poeuv Chhouk Sar’ at the International Film Festival in Berlin a few years ago, I realized they were in such good condition. Tea Lim Koun is a very creative movie director.”

Dy Saveth is one of the few movie stars who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. She says Tea Lim Koun was a movie director who cared a great deal about the quality of his movies. “He was the most difficult director,” she said. “He was also the most careful. Therefore, each of his movies was perfect.”

The perfection and the hard work he put into his movies earned him several awards both in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, his first film, “Lea Heui Duong Dara,” earned him an award from the late king Norodom Sihanouk, in 1964.

Tea Lim Koun also won the Best Director award in the Singapore film festival in 1972 and the Taiwan Film Festival in 1974. His films were shown all over Southeast Asia. Then the war came in 1970. The movie business came to a standstill as people were afraid to go see the movies, especially at night.

Tea Lim Koun says he had no choice but to leave Cambodia and look for new markets. He resettled in Montreal, Canada. Most of Cambodia’s movie stars and film professionals perished under the Khmer Rouge. This hit him very hard, he said.

“Whatever I lost in Cambodia, I didn’t care, because they are materials that I can earn back,” he said. “But the artists who died, you cannot buy them back no matter how much money you have.”

These days, Tea Lim Koun says he wants to encourage young aspiring filmmakers in Cambodia. “The Khmer people are artists,” he said. “We have Angkor Wat as proof. Our film industry will rise again in the future.”

A number of Cambodian films have earned international notoriety in recent years. This includes “Enemies of the People,” co-produced by journalist Thet Sambath, which won the special jury prize at Sundance; Kalyanee Mam’s “A River Changes Course,” which won a Sundance jury prize for documentary,” and Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture,” which has been nominated for an Oscar.

So Tea Lim Koun’s hope for future, where the Cambodian film industry rises, may in fact be happening today.