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In 2009, French-Khmer film-maker Davy Chou came to Cambodia to shoot Golden Slumbers (Le Sommeil d’Or). The feature-length documentary told the story of the country’s booming film industry in the 1960s — a time when even Norodom Sihanouk, the former king, was involved in a prolific side trade as producer, director and star of sentimental epics.
While in Phnom Penh, Chou ran a series of workshops for undergraduates interested in film. After one short film screening, a student put up his hand. “So, you’re just showing us an extract from a long film, then?” he asked.
“They didn’t even understand the basis of what a short film was,” recalls Chou. “That was a revelation for me.”
Last year, Chou was again in Phnom Penh, this time as a judge at the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival in its first year of public screenings (previously it was an online competition). Two dozen Cambodian shorts were screened at venues in the city and the organisers told him they had turned down many more.
He was amazed. “I thought: How is it possible that they’ve come from no knowledge to making 40 films a year? Something has happened,” he says.
In the past five years, there has been a resurgence in Cambodian film-making — an area of culture that was devastated by the ruthless anti-intellectualism of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, constricted by censorship and scant resources during the Soviet-dominated 1980s and remained a low priority during the international development drive that followed.
Cédric Eloy, chief executive of the Cambodia Film Commission, estimates that 20 feature films were made for domestic audiences last year, compared with fewer than five in 2010.
Limited technical expertise, combined with the desire to gain hands-on experience fast, has put short films at the centre of the boom — to considerable acclaim. As well as attracting growing audiences for short-film screenings in the kingdom, Cambodian film-makers have made their mark at the prestigious Tropfest South East Asia short-film festival in Malaysia.
This year, Polen Ly won the $12,000 first prize for Colourful Knots and his compatriot Somchanrith Chap came third. It was the second year in a row that Cambodia had taken two of the top three places.
Chou is not sure what has prompted the rapid growth in short-film making. “It was a mix of many things that happened at the time,” he says, citing Cambodia’s growing middle class and the increased availability of cheap cameras.
Others in Phnom Penh say Chou himself is behind the boom. “[Chou] was the one to open the gate to my dream of being in the entertainment industry,” says Sithen Sum, a Cambodian film-maker.
Having attended three of Chou’s 2009 workshops, Sum went on to become the first president of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer Films, Khmer Generations), a collective set up to promote film production in the country.
Over the past six years, the collective has nurtured an active community of film-makers working on short and medium-length films. One recent venture is the ambitious Pram Ang, an anthology of five shorts by different directors on the theme of childhood.
“Like most Cambodians, I used to think making a film meant a big budget and lots of equipment,” Sum says. “Only when we learnt about short films did we discover we can start with what we have.”
At the film camps run by Kon Khmer Koun Khmer, students are provided with transport to a location and mentors, but no equipment. Sum says that some own hand-held cameras, many borrow equipment and others just use their smartphones. Editing is done using open-source or pirated software.
“Making a film costs $100, or even less if you know how to lobby people,” he says.
The buzz, and festival prize money, has prompted a deluge of inexperienced enthusiasts with a give-it-a-go attitude to film making.
“There was [initially] a whole flurry of not very good short films,” says Ian Masters, a British screenwriter. He ran workshops for young film-makers in Phnom Penh in 2011 and again in 2014, and helped out on related projects in between for BBC Media Action, the UK broadcaster’s international development charity.
“There are a lot of stories focusing on life in university and ‘this boy loves that girl’ — an extension of music videos, basically,” he adds.
The Cambodian film-makers who have risen to prominence have been those who have found striking ways of working within the limitations of budget and technical abilities.
Ines Sothea, for example, won first prize at Tropfest South East Asia in 2014 for her film Rice, a story about a group of resourceful children living under the Khmer Rouge. The film was praised for its archival feel, because it was shot in monochrome and without dialogue. But the lack of sound was a product of circumstance: when the crew turned up for the shoot they discovered that a raucous wedding party was taking place next door.
“With no film school — no training at all — it’s really going back to ‘can we tell interesting stories?’,” says Masters.
The number of local cultural institutions ready to lend financial support to film-makers with interesting stories is growing. Meta House, the German-Cambodian cultural centre, and the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an archival and production organisation, have become important hubs for film screenings, workshops and public talks.
Alongside Davy Chou, Rithy Panh, who in 2013 was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film for The Missing Picture, has been important in supporting the fledgling community
Crowdfunding has also been a valuable resource. In March, 27-year-old Kavich Neang used Indiegogo, the international crowdfunding website, to secure the $2,000 he needed to complete production of his short film Tuc Tuc within just 24 hours of the campaign going live.
Tuc Tuc, like other short films from directors with successful records, has benefited from bringing experienced producers on board. “They [Davy Chou and French producer Marine Arrighi de Casanova] find funding from various grants, so I don’t need to worry about the money,” says Neang.
Talented film-makers also support their creative projects with bread-and-butter work on documentaries for the many non-governmental organisations based in Phnom Penh. Occasionally, NGOs will directly fund fictional films: half the budget for Pram Ang came from World Vision, because the humanitarian aid charity was interested in the themes of one of the five shorts.
The short-film boom is not confined to Cambodia. Cheap technologies and digital media are making the production and distribution of low-budget shorts easier in countries around the world.
But in Cambodia, there is a hard-headed sense of purpose behind the lively experimentation: short films are not an end in themselves, but rather a staging post on the path towards reclaiming the prematurely snuffed-out golden age of film-making that Chou tells of in Golden Slumbers.
“New people will come through and make short films,” says Sum. “This first generation can move on to feature films soon.”
For these first-generation film-makers, the prospect of making this transition is beguiling and daunting in equal measure. “It’s my dream to make a feature film in a few years, but it’s good for me to make small things in the beginning — to learn, to experience,” says Neang. “Everything is so new, right?”