As filmmaking students Sok Chan Rado and Vuk Vukmanovic arrived at Phnom Penh’s Svay Pope pagoda to shoot a scene for their documentary last week, they were surprised to encounter about 20 armed police officers rounding up vagrants.
One of those targeted by police was Sal, a 32-year-old beggar and the subject of their film. Then the officers turned on the students.
“They took our cameras, they asked for our papers—we couldn’t do anything,” said Mr. Vukmanovic, a 19-year-old graduate film student from the Geneva University of Art and Design in Switzerland.
“We didn’t know what to do but we realized it’s a crucial point in [Sal’s] life,” he said. “So we decided to film with our mobile phones, in secret.”
Mr. Rado, a 22-year-old film student at Bophana Center in Phnom Penh, held his Samsung smartphone close to his chest, glancing at it occasionally to make it seem like he was playing a video game. Mr. Vukmanovic held his phone to his ear with the camera facing toward the officers as they made the arrests.
Mr. Vukmanovic and Mr. Rado—who eventually got their cameras back—had teamed up to work on a short documentary about Sal’s life as a part of a monthlong exchange program for 16 students from the Geneva University of Art and Design and eight from the Bophana Center.
While the Swiss university sends graduate film students abroad for an exchange program every year, it has never collaborated with a Cambodian institute before.
When the program began about a month ago, the 24 participants scouted locations—and subjects—for their films, a process that proved challenging for the foreigners, said Fernand Melgar, a Swiss filmmaker and program supervisor.
“When we went around, they were afraid to see all this poverty—all these contradictions, the difference of levels, the gap between rich and poor—because in Switzerland, everyone has a good job,” he said.
Eventually, the students broke into groups of two and three and brainstormed ideas for their films: One is about life in a slum near a fabric factory, another is about a widow living with her children and grandchildren in a cemetery.
The six- to 10-minute films will be screened at the Bophana Center on Friday.
“For me, more important than the film is the encounter, because Cambodia is a developing country and [Cambodians] want to change society,” Mr. Melgar said, adding that he hoped the exchange program would encourage aspiring Swiss filmmakers to focus more on social and political issues.
“I hope it’s like little seeds: You have little seeds and you have to wait for a time. It’s a long process to realize that the world is interesting,” he said.
And eventually, Mr. Melgar hopes that Cambodian film students will travel to Geneva.
“For me, it will be a complete exchange if they have the opportunity to come to Switzerland.”