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Polen Ly was five years into a medical degree when, in 2012, he saw his first art house film. “It shocked me,” he says of the film — Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. “I didn’t know that kind of thing existed.”
The same year, his father bought him a digital camera. Ly used its rudimentary video-recording function to make the five-minute short Day 360, which he entered into the first edition of the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival in Phnom Penh.
Although he did not win, he discovered a community he was unaware existed. “It was like something waking up in spring,” he says. “Everybody had begun to watch and make strange films.”
Ly quickly moved on from the conventional trappings of his first film, which he describes in retrospect as “a love story, just like every teenager who dreams a lot”. Later that year, he produced Iva, a quirky black-and-white short about a village girl and her dog.
At first, he found it hard to convince friends of the value of his offbeat, structurally simple shorts. “But it’s already changing,” he says with a smile. “Young people are beginning to turn their heads to see other perspectives and to realise the beauty [of independent films] — just like me when I watched Amélie.”
Ly has been postponing his return to medical school for the past three years. In that time, the 26-year-old has become one of the country’s most respected short-film makers, thanks to his talent for telling unusual stories with a stripped-down maturity unusual in one so young.
He often shoots in black and white and without sound. “I love telling visual stories, rather than using words,” he says. “It’s also easy for me to edit,” he adds, pointing out that, like the rest of his peers, he has had no professional training.
In 2014, Ly was placed second in the Tropfest South East Asia festival with his whimsical Duetto — stylistically inspired by Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning The Artist — about a marriage of convenience between two one-armed musicians. Earlier this year, Ly’s Colourful Knots scooped the first prize of $12,000 at the same festival for its portrayal of the friendship between a young cancer patient and two street children.
Ly’s memorable narratives, combined with his determination to succeed, mark him out as one of the young film-makers likely to make his newfound passion pay in the long term.
For now, he approaches short films as a testing ground where he can hone the skills he needs to turn his “head full of stories” into ever more sophisticated films.
“It’s just like a painter who knows exactly what he’s painting but maybe not how to mix the colour, or get a good quality of canvas,” he says of directing. “I need to learn a lot.”