Matthew Rotha Ly wanted to make movies ever since he saw his father’s most famous film 25 years ago, when he was only six.
“I deeply loved the idea of being a filmmaker since I saw the earth break open in the film ‘12 Sisters’,” says the son of Ly Bun Yim, one of Cambodia’s most beloved filmmakers.
“I have my father’s blood. But I was very young, and I was terrified to see the eyes of the 12 sisters being drilled out.”
Rotha Ly has followed his father into movie-making after a bewildering and exhausting journey that began in a Cambodia on the brink of collapse and brought him, eventually, to Hollywood.
Early in 1975, sensing the Khmer Rouge would soon take control of Cambodia, Ly Bun Yim sent Rotha Ly and three of his brothers and sisters to live in Thailand.
They lived in a Bangkok hotel, but quickly ran out of money. Rotha Ly and one brother cleaned a food market in return for food and a place to sleep.
After two months, family friends in Bangkok arranged for Rotha Ly and his siblings to live in a Bangkok pagoda.
“The monk whipped my older brother because we ran away from the wat,” Rotha Ly says. “I missed my sister and younger brother and my parents. I always wept in the bathroom. I did not know why my parents threw me there.”
Rotha Ly spent six months walking the streets as a carrier for monks begging for food. Finally, an aunt living in France who had received a letter from Rotha Ly’s father pleading with her to help his children save enough money to bring them to France. But she could not afford to raise them.
“I thought I would see my parents,” Rotha Ly said. “But after only one night [in France], my aunt brought me to an orphanage building about two hours drive from Paris. I thought I would never see my parents.”
The four children lived in the orphanage for four years before they were adopted by a French family. One day, Rotha Ly slipped on some ice and broke his leg.
He was taken to a hospital, where he was reunited with his own family.
His father had finally tracked his children down through the orphanage.
“I recognized my parents’ faces when they opened the door, and I cried out,” Rotha Ly said.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Ly Bun Yim and his wife had been forced to leave Phnom Penh. They were sent first to Kompong Som and later moved to Kampot.
They eventually made their way to the Vietnamese border and bribed their way out of Cambodia with valuables they had kept hidden. They went first to Hanoi and then to Ho Chi Minh City.
Their first attempt to travel to France failed, so they moved to Laos. After five months they were sent back to Vietnam. Early in 1977, they were given permission to emigrate to France.
His family reunited, Ly Bun Yim borrowed money to start a restaurant. He took a job driving a taxi and his wife worked as a housekeeper in a hotel to pay for the restaurant.
In 1987, Ly Bun Yim and Rotha Ly left France for the US. Ly Bun Yim made a living traveling around the country showing his three Cambodian films to Cambodian-Americans. Later he found some work making commercials.
Rotha Ly began studying at the Columbia Film School in the US city of Los Angeles. Rotha Ly’s school fees were about $9,000 a year. To pay the bills, he worked as a fast-food cook for $5 an hour and then as a valet parking cars at a hotel.
One of his instructors told him not to worry about money. “He told us that only 2 percent of the students can make money, and that the other 98 percent can just make life good,” Rotha Ly said.
He graduated in 1991 and worked for a production company for five years. Now he has his own company, editing film for independent movie makers. He charges $60 an hour.
While Cambodia is a long way from the big-budget movies of Hollywood, Rotha Ly says his homeland has potential to produce quality films.
“People in Cambodia have not taken film lessons, but they produce good video, and the actors are very good,” Rotha Ly said, while in Cambodia for a one-month family visit. He suggested that since no single film company had enough money to produce a top-notch movie, perhaps several companies should work together to produce more expensive movies of higher quality.
Ly Bun Yim, Rotha Ly’s inspiration, is once again working in the trade. Last year he opened Flash Diamond Movie Productions. He’s almost finished building the first story of what he hopes will be a three-story production building. He’s looking for a $30,000 loan, probably from a combination of NGOs, that would allow him to produce the films.
He has also written three two-hour film scripts that “educate people to do good things, know what is wrong and right.”