Mist rose as the sun warmed the countryside around the meandering roads leading to the top of the Bokor mountain in Kampot province. It was 1969. Then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was directing and acting in his latest film “Rose de Bokor” and Kek Galabru, later to found the local rights group Licadho, had been invited to visit the hill-top movie set.
“I was good friends with King Sihanouk’s favorite daughter …Princess Norodom Sihanouk Sorya Roeungsey, who had invited my husband and I,” Kek Galabru remembered.
Wearing a T-shirt, khaki pants and a scarf, Prince Sihanouk shouted orders to his actors from behind the camera’s view finder: “No. No. No…. You have to act this way, watch me…. Yes, turn your head that way, and stand like this. The hairdo is no good,” Kek Galabru said, recalling the prince’s commands.
Then in the scenes where the prince had to act, he would give orders to the camera crew on how best to shoot his unfolding actions: “Shoot at this angle, and block some lights,” she continued.
Kek Galabru has many fond memories of that day—how happy and relaxed everyone working on the crew appeared and the energy and enthusiasm of the royal filmmaker.
“They had fun while shooting the movie…. They knew that this was not a formal outing like in the palace where everyone had to wear proper attire,” Kek Galabru said.
“It was funny and really interesting and particularly pleasant to see him work as a filmmaker for the very first time,” she added.
Retired King Norodom Sihanouk was skilled in capturing Cambodia’s beauty and exoticism: “He was an expert in showing his country—the green forests, and the wild jungle of Angkor Wat and Bokor mountain.”
Before Cambodia fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Kek Galabru, her mother, father and her younger sister had left in 1971 for France and then Canada. It was only in 1992 that she returned.
During those years of exile, it was Norodom Sihanouk’s films, shown in Paris and Beijing, that were Kek Galabru’s connection to Cambodia.
“The first time I watched ‘The Enchanted Forest,’ ‘Shadow Over Angkor’ and ‘The Rose of Bokor,’ I rediscovered my country again,” she said, noting that the majority of Norodom Sihanouk’s movies end on a melancholy note, which is all too part of Khmer culture.
“Khmers not only like happy endings, but they also like tragic endings,” and a typical Khmer love story usually features a beautiful young peasant girl who falls in love with a prince, but that love is not returned, the theme of Norodom Sihanouk’s film “Crepuscule” (1968).
“To show how much she loves him, the young girl kills herself by drowning in a lotus pond,” she said.
In one of Norodom Sihanouk’s more contemporary movies, “My Village at Sunset” (1992), lost love and melancholy are the main themes. In the film Neari, a young, pretty, village nurse in Siem Reap provincial hospital, suffers the romance and then tragic loss of her husband, Dr Seiha, (played by King Norodom Sihamoni), a Khmer surgeon from France, who dies in a land mine explosion while on duty.
Eliza Romey, who graduated in political science from Latrobe University in Melbourne, Australia and who wrote her masters dissertation on Norodom Sihanouk’s films—“King, Politician, Filmmaker” (1997)—said the monarch’s interest in cinema began at a young age when he started experimenting with filmmaking in the palace after being exposed to filmmaking techniques by a visiting French cinematographer.
The most important feature of Norodom Sihanouk’s films are their viewing as a “modern artifact of kingship,” and how they merge into a modern medium but retain the symbolism of the throne and its traditional position in relation to Khmer culture, Romey wrote in an email.
Norodom Sihanouk’s films “are equally significant as statements from a King to his people at a time when he needed to present his political ideas in a form that was not confused with that of the modern politicians,” Romey said.
“He used a modern form to reinforce his traditional position and comment on matters of politics with the ‘little people’ and thus bypassing the modern.