Industry Debates Plight of Homegrown Cinema

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith chaired a meeting Tuesday with the country’s leading actors, TV producers and filmmakers to discuss the oversaturation of foreign films playing on local television channels and the negative impact this is having on the domestic film industry and Cambodian culture in general.

Cambodian cinema flourished in the 1960s before the Khmer Rouge crushed the arts. And despite the global success of filmmaker Rithy Panh and recent acclaim for a handful of documentarians, the quality of filmmaking in the country still lags far behind Cambodia’s regional neighbors such as Thailand.

Some of the industry experts gathered Tuesday suggested that the glut of international films shown during prime-time TV hours was stifling the domestic industry’s revival.

“There are very few TV stations that want to conserve Khmer culture by producing Khmer films and TV programs, while all stations broadcast foreign films— some for up to 20 hours of their daily schedule,” said actress Chorn Chanleakhena, adding that there were plenty of Cambodian films being produced that could be shown instead.

“When we turn on our TV and see that the movie landscape belongs to foreigners, we must wonder what will become of Khmer art? If TV stations don’t broadcast Khmer films, the industry will remain in the wilderness,” she said.

Pan Phuong Bopha, one of the country’s few successful female film directors, agreed with Ms. Chanleakhena and called on the Ministry of Information to adopt a policy restricting the broadcast of foreign films.

“I want to see the resurgence of Khmer cinema and I believe it should be the duty of TV stations to help promote Khmer culture,” she said, adding that the screening of Thai movies was a direct threat to the Khmer identity—as Thai culture is subtly creeping into Cambodian culture.

Chhay Bora, whose directorial debut “Lost Loves” was Cambodia’s entry into the 2012 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category, disagreed, saying that those working in Cambodian cinema could learn from Thailand due to the cultural parallels.

“Why are Thai movies more of a threat than Korean, or Chinese, or Singaporean or Indian films?” he asked, suggesting that the concerns over Thai films was due to the lasting effects of the anti-Thai riots in 2003, which were sparked by rumors that a Thai actress claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.

Mr. Bora added audiences here recognize that foreign films are of a higher quality than most domestic fare, so the burden fell on the government to introduce filmmaking schools and screenwriting academies to develop talent.

Sin Sophat, a manager at TV5, said Cambodian audiences crave quality productions, something advertisers were well aware of. Requiring TV stations to show lower-quality Khmer films would rob the companies of advertising revenue, which they use—ironically—to fund Khmer-produced programming.

“The Ministry of Information should play the role of a parent to nurture the technical skills of actors, writers and directors at schools in Cambodia,” he said.

Responding to the participants’ comments, Mr. Kanharith said he recognized that the proliferation of foreign films was a concern but said government intervention was not necessarily the solution.

“We cannot ban foreign films or even Thai films because it would be bad for our image, and if other countries started banning our films, it would harm the growth of Cambodia’s film industry,” he said.

The government will consider ways to encourage TV stations to show more local productions, Mr. Kanharith said, going on to remind the group that in 1994 and 1995, the government attempted to limit the percentage of foreign films being screened but quickly found there were not enough domestic films to show in their place.

“First, we must strengthen our quality in order to reach a point where we can do this,” Mr. Kanharith said.

“We have the wisdom, but when our stomach is empty, it is impossible,” he said.

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