In a panel discussion about “The Art of Acting,” CIFF and The Acting Academy invited notable figures from the new generation of Cambodian cinema, including actors, directors, and casting directors, to discuss tools and strategies for helping fictional cinema grow by relying on a new actor/director relationship. The panel took place on March 31st at the French Institute Cinema, and it was moderated by KB Saadi from the Acting Academy.
Established a few months ago, the Acting Academy aims to help actors in Cambodia enhance their craft and professional work.
Saadi began the panel by stating the need for trained actors and the current role actors play in Cambodian films. According to Saadi, there are three ways in which films can cast their actors:
- Wild-Casting: Take non-professional actors because they fit with the characters and offer them an intensive acting preparation to bring them to be able to carry the role.
- Take non-professional actors who fit a character role and offer them intensive acting preparation before filming.
- Choose a trained actor, but the training may not always fit the director’s style.
Saadi continued, “Where we are now, in Cambodia, we are at a crossroads with a lot of very good, very respected movies that have been done in this system of meeting between trained directors and untrained actors. The big challenge is to know how we can take this type of training for an actor who can be like a real asset for the cinema, which is very hard because I’ve also been through this situation. The first thing that I did was to work with unprofessional people, and I spent ten years training them.”
Davy Chou, who has made several films with many non-professional actors, shared his experience casting for roles in his 2016 film, Diamond Island. “I fall into category one and two of your nomenclature definition,” Chou said, referring to Saadi’s categorization. “Meaning that there are around fifteen or ten main actors in Diamond Island, and all of them were non-professional in the sense that it was their first time experiencing acting.”
“I did a long, free casting of non-professional actors, going out on the streets for four months,” Chou recalled. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, honestly, to suddenly have four months of just looking at people in the street and imagining whether that person could be an actor.”
In a film that deals with the realism of Cambodia’s youth, Chou enjoyed trying to train his actors for three months before shooting began. “It was not like my method of thinking that I want to work with a non-professional,” Chou explained. “It was more about the realism of making a film in Cambodia.”
Chou goes on to observe that trained actors who usually work in Khmer theatre of “La Count” or in TV, music videos, and commercial films are not the type of actors he wanted in his films. The possibility of retraining them or the frustration of different acting methods is what made Chou decide to cast non-professional actors.
Kim Sophea, who has worked as a casting director for many years, has also worked with many international productions and has seen many heartbreaks when searching for actors to play a role in these films. “I would help to find actors in the film that they are looking for, just to show them the capacity that we can find in Cambodia,” Kim explained. “From my own experience, I rarely work with local professional actors and actresses because I found in 2010 or 2011, it was really hard.”
Kim observed that many actors with experience would often be cast in the past without little to no training, but due to their looks and height. “ But for the foreign film productions, it’s something really different,” Kim continued. “ We are looking at people with natural skin.” Citing that she would often ask actors to remove makeup to see what they look like naturally.
Chen Chen, a professional actress in Cambodia, has a different perspective and shared her insight on the opportunities she is offered in the kingdom. “I have to admit that compared to artistic film, the local market has a lot more opportunity for us to have a chance to earn money and a chance to add to our project,” Chen admits. “ Cambodian actresses or actors are really talented because we don’t even have a chance to train or get any education on that (acting), but we really have talent.”
She believes if there were more opportunities to train, everyone interested in acting will be able to hone their craft better. Stating that the local production houses would often pay good money for the type of over the top acting style that many arthouse directors reject. Adding that she would still like to be given a chance to audition for film directors who do not believe actors like herself can deliver a realistic or natural way of acting. She is saddened that although programs such as the Acting Academy are available, the strict commitment for every weekend for 2 years goes against her work schedule.
Chhun Piseth who is an actor and dancer, found his way into a feature film, White Building, through his talents as a dancer. He believes that a good actor can mix his training and natural skills. “If you can mix the rawness and the training together,” Chhun explains. “It might be something that really makes you understand more about what the story is about and what you want to express.” Before he was an actor he would work on production sets and was a trained dancer, so he knew how to move his body to portray an emotion. For his acting, Chuun would rely on his life experiences like family fights, being broken-hearted, or being sad. These emotions helped him become a more realistic actor.
Kompheak was a teacher, but acted and directed too. Normally, a friendly and comedic man, Kompheak met Kim when she was casting for “The Gate” for lunch and he would trick her by pretending to act mad or mean during the meal. She was so impressed by his acting skills that she recommended him for casting. “So basically I got the job by tricking people,” Kompheak said jokingly. He emphasises that as an actor, he tries to give everything he has into a role.
Kim has seen many directors reject actors for a variety of reasons, but as the film industry in Cambodia continues to grow, she can only feel encouragement for the future for experienced and new actors. “Understand the foundations of what acting is, how hard it is, because it’s a job,” Kim advised. Recommending potential actors to read on what it’s like to be on a production or study and practise different acting techniques. “I really encourage you and one day we will be there together and then the industry gets bigger and that’s where we have the job for everyone who loves acting in cinema.”
As the panel drew to a close, it became evident that there is so much more to explore when it comes to the challenges that the acting industry is facing. Despite only scratching the surface of the topics at hand, there is reason to be hopeful for future discussions. With the overwhelming interest shown during the first panel of this type, CIFF is committed to providing more space for these crucial exchanges, allowing us to delve deeper into the nuances of learning acting and the challenges that the industry must navigate.