Another blind spot you shed some light on is Cambodian cinema…
This is really a very exciting opportunity, even if we only have three individual screenings in the Arsenal cinema – a first, necessary step, towards even thinking about preserving these films. Cambodia was the only country in south-east Asia that brought about democracy following decolonization. Sihanouk became president of the country, a man with social democratic values. He modernized the country and was a film-lover who shot many films himself. During his presidency in the 1960s and afterwards in the early 1970s around 300-400 feature films were made. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they murdered most of the directors, film technicians and actors. Very few were able to escape with their life, not to mention their films. Which is why only very few of these works still exist. Of course the material wasn’t stored under the best conditions, meaning we had to fight very hard for this small series. For one, we had to convince the directors to show these films. This was only possible with the help of the director Davy Chou, who was born in France and has Cambodian roots. He made the documentary Le sommeil d’or (Golden Slumbers) about the golden era of Cambodian cinema – which is also being screened in the Forum 2012. Finally, we actually managed to bring three of the old films to Germany in acceptable through precarious condition – an adventurous journey.
Did a film infrastructure exist in Cambodia, in the sense of a studio system?
There was no studio system. The films were made under extremely low-budget conditions. The directors were forced to develop their own tricks and their own style. You can see this in the works, which naively produce cinema magic with extremely limited means.
Puthisen Neang Kongrey (12 Sisters) by Ly Bun Yim reminds me of Ray Harryhausen’s early special effects, which were more or less reinvented in this film due to the lack of knowledge of what others had done before. And yet this is what is so charming about the film. Best known is Puos Keng Kang (The Snake Man) by Tea Lim Koun, which is still circulating on the black market in Cambodia as a technically inadmissible 90-minute copy. We show the film in a quality DVD version. Surely this is not the best solution, but nonetheless very enlightening because in reality the film isn’t 90, but 164 minutes long. The Forum is presenting this version for the first time since the era of its production. It is evidence of Tea Lim Koun’s great narrative talent. Young Cambodians know this film either from miserable video CDs or else not at all. The older generation still remembers it. If you like, this is about generations, about a generation that lost the memories of its parents.