A brief introduction to Cambodian cinema

Published by


by Ema Nemčovičová

There are many reasons why Cambodian cinema may not be so recognized. The industry is underfinanced, there’s a lack of film professionals and producers are not willing to take a risk because of the Ministry of Culture’s censorship policies – a remnant of The Khmer Rouge Regime.

As a result, there is a reluctance to create bold, non-conventional pieces. Most Cambodian filmmakers focus on stories with conventional structures. Some of them feel like there is a need for powerful stories and great messages to convey important social lessons. Such as Chhay Bora – whose first film, the Khmer Rouge era-set Lost Loves, was Cambodia’s second official entry for the Oscars in 2012. 

However, there are directors who want to make independent films and enrich the cinema d’auteur. The most prominent Cambodian independent filmmaker is Rithy Panh.

Rithy was born in Phnom Penh. His father was a Senator and an undersecretary at the Ministry of Education. The Khmer Rouge expelled Rithy’s family from the capital and afterward tortured them by overworking and malnourishment. 

Rithy managed to escape the regime and became a refugee at the age of fifteen. He found his new home in France and discovered his interest in cinema. It was Alain Resnais and a camera that he found by accident that made him fall in love with the moving pictures. He went on to graduate from the La Fémis in Paris and returned to Cambodia later on, while still using France as a home base. A now well-established director Rithy Panh´s omnipresent themes are Cambodia’s violent history and the lives of people who are overlooked by society.

Rithy´s docudrama Rice People tells the story of a rural family struggling with life in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Rice People competed at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival and was submitted to the 67th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, the first time a Cambodian film had been submitted for an Oscar. 

His 2013 documentary film The Missing Picture was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards. Using clay figures, archival footage, and his narration was perhaps the only way of re-imagining the devastating memories. As infant victims of abuse will sometimes be asked by social workers to tell their stories through soft toys, Panh tells part of his history through these figurines. As well as this stratum of tragedy and pain, The Missing Picture has an element of Godardian reflection: the “missing picture” is the definitive image of truth for which he is searching.

Rithy, along with director Ieu Pannakar, has developed the Bophana, the Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, that aims to preserve the country’s film, photographic, and audio history.

“You have to collect the details today. If you don’t, history will repeat itself,” Rithy said. “In Cambodia, I train people on documentaries first, even if I know they will move to fiction. Ken Loach and Kubrick include a lot of reality in their [fiction] films.” Panh is currently focusing on archiving Khmer Rouge propaganda movies. “They are fiction films. A fiction film is stronger when the director comes from documentaries.”

Another independent documentary writer-director that caught international attention is Kavich Neang. His theme is the fast-changing character of the Cambodian capital. Documentaries such as White Building (2021)Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019) and Goodbye, Phnom Penh (2015) talk about locals who have to face the demolition of their homes. Roots, sudden changes, identity, and self are also the main interests of Davy Chou. Return to Seoul (2022) and Diamond Island (2016), somewhat pop, coming-of-age dramas, were premiered and awarded at Cannes.

However, Cambodian audiences are not so keen on independent cinema. Horror, action, and romantic films are what Cambodians love the most. It’s not so different from the rest of the world. says Mr. Sovichea Cheap, the director of the Cambodian Film Commission.

The Cambodian Film Commission was established to facilitate international film production in Cambodia delivering a wide range of information and services. Such as sourcing, pre-scouting, and easing administrative processes.

“The kind of films we produce the most are history movies. International producers reach out to us mainly to make those. Like First They Killed My Father (2017, dir. Angelina Jolie) or White Soldier (2014, dir. Erick Zonca). Many French production companies are interested in shooting films in Cambodia. Like Path (2017, dir. Jeanne Labrune) about a Catholic mission in Cambodia which blooms into a subtle, yet difficult love story or an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly by Chantal Akerman. French directors tend to reflect on the colonial past.”

Another CFC mission is to promote Cambodia in major festivals and markets such as Busan IFF and Cannes FestivalCFC supports local filmmakers and so the film sector in Cambodia would develop. Since Cambodia doesn’t have any film schools and it doesn’t seem like there are going to be any established anytime soon, CFC provides workshops, training courses, consultations, and film equipment.

Davy Chou’s Diamond Island and Retourn to Seoul as well as The Missing PictureThe Sea Wall, and Exile directed by Rithy Panh, were all done in collaboration with the CFC. It was Rithy Panh’s idea to establish the Cambodian Film Commission.

“It was very difficult for international producers to reach out to Cambodian ones when there was no film commission. They didn’t know how to resource human resources, who to contact, or how to get the permits … But since establishing the CFC in 2009, Cambodian film production has risen. Now we produce around 20 films per year. Before COVID it was around 90.”

The Cambodian Film Commission also organizes the Cambodia International Film Festival to shine more light on independent, local films. “Our aim is to promote independent cinema and its remarkable films. By doing so, we hope to attract broad audiences.”

The All Asian Independent Film Festival, a sister festival of ÉCU is also striving to platform independent cinema and remarkable films made by Asian cinéastes. AAIFF has been launched to bring global attention and offer excellent opportunities for all Asian independent filmmakers to find audiences for their films, to connect with peers, distributors, and talent scouts – and importantly to provide them unforgettable film festival experience.

The All Asian Independent Film Festival is happening on the 6th, 7th and 8th of October 2023 in Power Plant Cinema Rockwell Center, Makati City, Philippines. We kindly invite you to celebrate the cinema together! 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *