From Faded Reels to the Cinematic Hall of Fame
Cambodia has an extensive history with cinema, having reached a “Golden Age of Film” in the 1960s, but has been almost unrecognised due to political struggles and wars. In response to this, a new generation of filmmakers began working with limited resources to produce and film local films, without knowing their history.
As part of his documentation of the history and stories of Cambodian cinema, Dr. LinDa Saphan has authored “Faded Reels: The Art of Four Cambodian Filmmakers 1960-1975.”
The book launch will take place at Prime Cineplex Samai Square in Toul Kork on July 30-31. There will be an opening ceremony, a screening of five films by Cambodian pre-war directors and contemporary directors, as well as a panel discussion on “Cambodian Film Industry: Challenges and Opportunities”.
The 30th of July will feature Cambodia’s prewar films: Thavary Meas Bang by Uong Kanthou and Mother’s Heart (Chet Mday) by Yvon Hem in Khmer with English subtitles. There will also be panel discussions and screenings of John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, Davy Chu’s Golden Slumbers, and Kulikar Sotho’s The Last Reel on the 31st.
The Faded Reels of Cambodian Cinema
The book addresses Cambodia’s visual and popular culture of the early years of Cambodian cinema. During the 1960s, Cambodia’s film industry experienced a Golden Age due to the opening of several film production companies and theatres across the country. More than 400 films were produced during this period. It was during this time that Ly Bun Yim, Tea Lim Koun, Yvon Hem, and Uong Citta (Kanthouk) launched their careers, creating classics such as The Snake Man, The Twelve Sisters Story, Sovannahong, and Thavary Meas Bong.
In addition to plot summaries and film screenshots, the book provides information on 16 rare Cambodian films; giving readers an insight into an undocumented period of Southeast Asian film history.
Film fans and students alike will appreciate “Faded Reels”, which describes a wide range of scenes from the film set of the era, demonstrating each director’s technical excellence, innovative storytelling, compelling characters, and beautiful cinematography. Each filmmaker’s career is also described in a mini-biography, as well as how their work has influenced Cambodian cinema. There is an exclusive interview with director Uong Citta, as well as an analysis of landmark Cambodian films, and experts from the Khmer film industry.
The book will hopefully be the first of many that will help build an academic resource for Cambodian filmmaking. Written in English and translated into Khmer by the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Department of Media and Communication. She published her book with the Royal University of Phnom Penh after their success with modern Khmer adaptations.
The Voice Behind the Book
Dr. LinDa Saphan is recognized as an expert in Cambodian cultural studies and is the author of numerous publications on Cambodian popular music before the war. She was the lead researcher and associate producer for the documentary film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll and acted as executive producer for several other film projects. She is currently an Associate Professor of Sociology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, New York City and she is also a Senior Research Fellow at The Center for Khmer Studies.
When Saphan observed that Cambodian schools lacked resources and education on film history, she realized there wasn’t much written about the subject. “There are few films with anyone knowledgeable to write a study guide for the teacher to use,” Saphan explained. “I did (research) for Don’t think I’ve Forgotten, but I hope with “Faded Reels”, there’ll be more lessons on Cambodian film.”
While working on the documentary film Don’t Think I’d Forgotten, Saphan felt inspired to do more with all the historical data she had collected. As part of her research, she examined four filmmakers whom she believed had a significant impact on Khmer cinema of the era using the same method of data gathering.
“I believe that these four filmmakers were truly film auteurs with unique styles and vision,” Saphan explained. “Each frame from their film is recognizable and distinctive from the others.”
In observing the different techniques filmmakers used back then, Saphan recalls being fascinated by films from Uong Citta (Khantouk), which often explore psychological trauma. “I think there is a lot to learn, basically making a film with little budget and limited equipment (then and now),” Saphan stated. “Prewar filmmakers dive into their art and try to find creative solutions to any technical limitations. Ly Bun Yim was the embodiment of ingenuity and innovation!”
In France, Saphan was able to gain an exclusive interview with Uong Citta, where the legendary director shared her artistic vision and life journey as a filmmaker. The book research came from many interviews with many experts in the Cambodian film industry. From data from the charismatic Franco-Khmer filmmaker, Davy Chou, to Fulbright Awardee Jessica Austin, who wrote her master thesis on two pre-war films.
Watering the Roots for the Future Filmmakers
A key figure in resources was Nate Hun, who gave her access to view all surviving prewar films in his collection. “He also is a source of knowledge that are instrumental in building a database of all prewar films listed in the annex,” Saphan explained. She found people kept saying there are 300-350-400 films (produced in the 1960s), but according to her research, 444 films have been documented in the annex. “444 films in 15 years!” Think of that! It was a thriving movie industry indeed,” she added.
“I think films have the power to move us emotionally beyond the pure entertainment of escapism,” Saphan stated. “ I’ve been teaching using films for years – reel city – urban cinematic experience and cinematic others – decolonizing the gaze.”
Last month, the 11th Cambodia International Film Festival showed that the future for a burgeoning film industry holds promise for the kingdom. However, academically, the country offers limited access to resources on the history of Khmer film.
Hoping to include Cambodian cinema in film study and the country’s historic connection in film, Saphan wants filmmakers today to understand and remember the films made by the generation before. “This book is not just a technical analysis, but also put into the socio-political context of the time,” Saphan explained. “Many will learn about “Ta Eyse” or “Ab” and where these characters come from. It’s their story, it’s their history too.”
“Students can not only learn about their film cultural heritage but also take pride in the local production of knowledge,” Saphan explained. “It is our responsibility to tell and share the story for the next generation and with all art lovers about our cinematic legacy and journey.”
The book launch is on July 30-31 at Prime Cineplex Samai Square in Toul Kork from 9 am to 11 am. Film screenings are free to those who register at https://fadedreels.eventbrite.com
There will be a panel discussion on the Cambodian Film Industry: Challenges and Opportunities.
Written by Sotheavy Nou