Simple Stories

Amid the racket of Phnom Penh traffic, a girl watches street life unfold from the safe confines of her car. The spell is broken when two children approach to sell her strings of jasmine.

Over the seven minutes of Polen Ly’s short film “Colorful Knots,” the characters begin a friendship—moments stolen at red lights and cut off once the window rolls up as the car drives away. 

A scene from 'Colorful Knots' (Polen Ly)
A scene from ‘Colorful Knots’ (Polen Ly)

The film took first prize at the 2015 Tropfest Southeast Asia festival in February—another in the series of short-film successes by Cambodians after Sothea Ines won the year before.

Set to strings and piano, “Colorful Knots” tells a simple tale, but one with emotional weight.

“The story was inspired by a true scene I witnessed in Phnom Penh during traffic jams: Two street kids was sharing a mango together with a kind smile to each other while some other people in the cars nearby were obsessing with their smartphones,” the director said.

From these vignettes, however, Mr. Ly extracts a deeper reflection on human connection, particularly across class divides in an increasingly unequal society.

Subtly toned and unhurriedly paced, the film excels because it seeks nothing grand. But its triumph at the festival made a mark on Cambodia’s fledgling independent film scene, hampered by limited resources.

“The limitations of Cambodian filmmakers [are] mostly on funding and technical equipment,” said Prum Seila, president of film collective Kon Khmer Koun Khmer, which organizes the annual Chaktomuk Short Film Festival (CSFF) as well as a number of workshops for young filmmakers.

“Colorful Knots” was shot over three days and cost about $1,800, mostly raised via online crowdfunding.

But the international success of filmmakers like Mr. Ly is encouraging both aspiring filmmakers and sponsors.

Since the first CSFF in 2012, submissions to the local festival continue to increase. “Every year we receive more and more,” Mr. Seila said.

And the industry is paying attention. Major Cineplex, for example, signed on as a sponsor for the CSFF, which will hold its fourth festival this November.

“Cinemas are the last gateway for [local] filmmakers to showcase and commercialize their works, be it short or feature. So a film stakeholder like Major Cineplex by Cellcard is more than delighted to not only venue sponsor CSFF, but also looks to assist it in other areas,” Sao Sokny, Major Cineplex’s general manager, said at a press conference earlier this month.

“The more films are submitted to CSFF, the more content we can feed our film industry with,” Mr. Sokny added.

That may sound promising, but Cambodian filmmakers will likely still have to make do on small budgets for a while.

And besides, Mr. Ly says, what ultimately matters is a good story.

“For me as still a young filmmaker, I have been struggling to control emotion both in the story and the acting to make the film flow realistically and artistically in the same time,” Mr. Ly said.

“It is somehow challenging for me to control the middle path between ‘bad acting’ and ‘overreacting,’ and between ‘too sad story’ and ‘too sweet story.’”

He says he’s learning, though, and taking notes from other storytellers.

“To share my point of view, both filmmakers and actors should watch and read as much inspiring films and books as possible, especially the independent ones that give the diversity of stories and perspective, which inspire us to build confidence to stand right for our own perspective,” he said.

Meta House in Phnom Penh will screen “Colorful Knots” on Saturday starting 7 p.m. along with other Tropfest 2015 winners: Chap Somchanrith’s “A Fistful of Pebbles” (2014, 7 min.), which took third place, and Audience Choice Award winner Chhin Sothea’s “The Scavenger” (2014, 7 min.). Those films will be joined by two other 2015 Cambodian Tropfest entries—“The Ride” by Chea Sokyou and “Bubble” by Sokharo Hang—as well as last year’s winners, Ms. Ines’ “Rice” and Mr. Ly’s runner-up “Duetto.”

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