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Metro Magazine (issue 181): Changing Course, A New Wave of Acclaim for Cambodian Documentary

Changing Course: A New Wave of Acclaim for Cambodian Documentaries

The medium of film is a marvellous means by which to commemorate culture and history, but in the case of Cambodia, a tumultuous past and political struggles have led to the destruction of film stock and a decline in patronage nationwide. Glenn Dunks discusses three documentaries – Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers and Kalyanee Mam’s A River Changes Course – that herald a promising revival in Cambodian cinema.

When raising the subject of Asian cinema on the world-cinema stage and its rise up the critics’ hierarchy, discussion inevitably leans towards South Korea and China. These nations have vibrant, healthy film industries that have produced their share of classic cinema in the last decade, including Still Life (Jia Zhang-Ke, 2006), Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007), Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) and Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014). But it is perhaps worth examining the works emanating from Cambodia, in particular the documentarians who have been educated in the West and have used this experience to tell stories about their homeland. Nestled in South-East Asia – with Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, and Laos to the north – Cambodia is merely twice the size of Tasmania, yet has a population of around 15 million. Once the home of a thriving industry replete with colourful, eccentric, musical, action-packed films, it is only now receiving international recognition for both its era-defining motion pictures as well as the new wave of Cambodian filmmakers bringing the country’s culture to global audiences.

Cambodian cinema may have remained unnoticed if it weren’t for the wonderful coincidence of three Cambodian documentaries being released within two years of one another, each receiving high-profile buzz on the festival circuit as well as high praise from critics and general audiences. The most renowned of these is undoubtedly The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year – the first for a Cambodian film in any category – and won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The latest in a wonderful line of documentaries that push boundaries, The Missing Picture can sit proudly alongside Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010), The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012), Aim High in Creation! (Anna Broinowski, 2013) and the pioneering works of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard[1] as a work that goes above and beyond what audiences have come to expect from the form.

To tell his story, Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime who now resides in France, takes the unusual step of creating vast tableaus of Pol Pot’s catastrophes using clay figurines handcrafted by sculptor Sarith Mang. Instead of typical documentary devices such as talking heads, Panh and his collaborators employ these figurines to build images that exist nowhere except in the minds of the Cambodians who survived the forced-labour camps of the communist regime, and to depict scenes that he deemed too traumatic to show in any other way. He is literally and figuratively building a ‘missing picture’: a link between the government-sanctioned propaganda films that were popular during Pol Pot’s leadership and the devastating postwar art that details the destruction of Cambodia, like the photography of Nhem Ein,[2] novels like Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers and Panh’s own The Elimination (co-written by Christophe Bataille), and films such as Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (David Munro, 1979) and the Oscar-winning The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984).

The fifty-year-old director’s gamble is ambitious, but, as the film progresses and his figurines become frail and sickly, they take on lives of their own – perhaps those of the souls that were wiped off the Earth. Reminiscent of the way Todd Haynes portrayed the body- and mind-altering effects of anorexia in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) using decaying plastic Barbie dolls, The Missing Picture somehow turns clay into an emotionally captivating storytelling device that, when combined with the emotive French-language narration of Randal Douc and hypnotic musical score of Marc Marder, makes for a truly astounding work of cinema.

Panh’s film opens with shots of all-but-destroyed film stock, layered in thick, hard crusts of dirt and muck. But while The Missing Picture goes into Pol Pot’s eradication of the nation’s film industry in a minor capacity, it is Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, 2011) that delves deeper into the lesser-known cinematic iconoclasm of the Khmer Rouge’s reign. However, unlike Panh, who acts as a co-producer on Golden Slumbers, first-time feature director Chou wasn’t able to find as novel a way of telling his story. Furthermore, the absence of the very thing discussed by the documentary – the estimated 400 films that filled Cambodian movie houses in the late 1960s and first half of the 1970s[3] – makes for a lot of secondhand storytelling that succeeds or fails based on the quality of his interview subjects.

Luckily, though, the story is so richly fascinating that it will make an impression on any movie lover who watches it. Not only does it seek to understand what makes film such a special medium for so many people – whether they be creators or viewers – but Golden Slumbers also explores what it has meant for the Cambodian people to have their filmed history systematically erased and abandoned, replaced with war propaganda to show the world a far-from-realistic portrayal of the nation. Many of the films discussed in Chou’s documentary don’t even have IMDb profiles – they’re considered that obscure.

The depiction of absence in Golden Slumbers foregrounds the destruction of celluloid film stock, framing such annihilation – which is usually intentional, due to the advent of new formats, or, in the case of the once-thought-lost Australian film Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), a result of ‘making room’ due to perceived lack of interest[4] – as disrespectful of history. Some of the films and their music exist, seen in the film through YouTube videos, but many will never be viewed or heard ever again. And due to the systematic murder of their creators, hours upon hours of cinema likely vanished with Pol Pot’s victims and their memories.

Linking these two films even more is the fact that Panh and Chou – the latter of whom is the grandson of revered Cambodian film producer Van Chann – have dedicated their recent efforts to the restoration of Cambodian film titles. Many films from the period are ‘bombastic epics’, as Clarence Tsui refers to them,[5] but the likes of Apsara (Norodom Sihanouk, 1966), La joie de vivre (Norodom Sihanouk, 1969) and Sobasith (Ly Bun Yim, 1965) have been successfully restored in 35mm prints for Memory!, a preservation film festival founded by Panh. The first festival of its kind in Asia, the inaugural Memory! was hosted in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in 2013 by the Technicolor Foundation.[6]

Much like the situation in many countries without the means to have a sustainable film industry, the spread of digital film has been a boon for Cambodia. Not only will future preservation efforts be made easier, permanent and more efficient for countries that have no appropriate film-storage facilities due to celluloid needing low temperatures and dry air[7], but filmmakers will also be able to document Cambodia and other nations like it in ways previously thought unfeasible due to weather and remoteness that makes lugging around film cameras a Herculean task.

One such example is A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam, 2013) – which, as its title suggests, typifies a different direction for Cambodian cinema. Rather than discussing the Khmer Rouge, Mam’s film instead focuses on the little-seen world of the country’s provincial population, showing three families struggling with low crop counts, diminishing fish supplies, rickety riverside housing, bank debt and ever-encroaching modernisation. Unlike Panh and Chou, who studied and came of age in France, Mam received an American education after she and her family escaped Cambodia following the fall of Pol Pot – and her film exemplifies this, with its clean, distinctly American aesthetic. While not as stylistically advanced as The Missing Picture, Mam’s A River Changes Course – which won the World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary award at Sundance – is still a remarkably effective look at a world that is generations removed from the Khmer Rouge genocide, but which must now face the very modern issues that plague a rising industrial nation like Cambodia.[8] The documentary also gives a voice to young Cambodians who want their share of the global revenues that their labour, predominantly in the textile industry (for companies like Nike and Gap), gives rise to.[9]

Cambodians’ newly vocal, globalised worldview is perhaps what has helped spawn this revived attention on the nation’s film industry, as filmmakers are seeking to utilise the connected modern world to bring their stories to a larger audience. Panh is undoubtedly the face of this recent resurgence of Cambodian cinema, and, much like how Jia Zhang-Ke’s fiction and nonfiction works have become the greatest chronicles of China’s industrial revolution, so too have Panh’s films become his homeland’s most high-profile cinematic exports. When the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a season of this new wave of Cambodian cinema in April 2013,[10] three of the films showcased were directed by Panh: The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000), S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011). Golden Slumbers and A River Changes Course also screened, of course, as did Dancing Across Borders (Anne Bass, 2010), The Last Refuge (Anne-Laure Porée & Guillaume P Suon, 2013) and Where I Go (Neang Kavich, 2013), the last of which depicts the daily discrimination faced by a boy of unique Cambodian-Cameroonian descent.

Outside of the documentary arena, Cambodia is also attempting to foster upcoming filmmakers, many of whom have embraced the horror genre, despite a nationwide downturn in both cinemas and audiences for local product. Heng Tola is a particularly prolific director of genre fare, and his works include Ghost Banana Tree (2005), The Forest (2005) and Villa Horror (2006). The Red Sense (Tim Pek, 2008) is a rare example of an Australian–Cambodian co-production and typifies the nation’s resourcefulness in commemorating its tragic history by finding any means necessary to do so (like elaborate clay figurines), even if that means crossing an ocean and making their film independently. It was subsequently banned by Cambodian officials.[11] Some filmmakers have even taken to retelling the tales that filmmakers had once brought to the screen but which are no longer in circulation. The Snake King’s Child (Fai Sam Ang, 2001) is one such example, taking the myth of the half-human daughter of a snake god popularised by The Snake Man (Tea Lim Koun, 1970) and repackaging it for a new audience.

Will these titles and those in their wake reach audiences at festivals and movie houses around the world? The three documentaries that have spurred our renewed interest in Cambodian film are not isolated instances but rather evidence of a seam of talent waiting to be mined. These films tell stories about a region that audiences have heretofore not seen enough in cinema, much like China and South Korea once were. And all of these considerations aside, The Missing Picture, Golden Slumbers and A River Changes Course make for a sublime unofficial trilogy of scintillating cinematic experiences.


[1]A list of the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s work can be viewed at <>, accessed 14 May 2014. [2]Alex Selwyn-Holmes, ‘Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields’, Iconic Photos, 12 April 2011, <>, accessed 20 February 2014. [3]Beth Daigle, ‘Valleywood – Preserving the “Golden Age” of Cambodian Cinema’, Merrimack Valley Magazine, 14 May 2013, <>, accessed 1 April 2014. [4]Wake in Fright: Recovery and Restoration’, National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, <>, accessed 2 April 2014. [5]Clarence Tsui, ‘Cannes Winner Rithy Panh Launches Heritage Film Festival in Cambodia’, The Hollywood Reporter, 29 May 2013, <>, accessed 29 March 2014. [6]Panh founded Memory! International Film Heritage Festival <>, which Chou worked on as coordinator in 2013; see Tsui, ibid. [7] Sean Gleeson, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Bophana Centre’, The Phnom Penh Post,, accessed 22 May, 2014. [8]See Sarah Thomasson, ‘Cambodia on the Rise’, Textile World Asia, April/May/June 2013, <>, accessed 2 April 2014. [9]Suy Se, ‘Cambodian Garment Workers Dying for a Pay Rise’,, 9 January 2014, <>, accessed 2 April 2014. [10]‘Old Ghosts, New Dreams: Cambodian Cinema | April 19–25’, Film Society of Lincoln Center, <>, accessed 28 March 2014. [11]Antonio Graceffo, ‘Cambodian Government Says No to Khmer Rouge Movie’, Brooklyn Monk in Asia, 16 May 2008, <>, accessed 1 April 2014.



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