Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown
By Antonio Graceffo
While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”
Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia. Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop?
Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”
His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia. The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia, the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia, such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.
When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed.
With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia, “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film.
Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia, to debute his film in Phnom Penh. One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh.
According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission.
Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie.”
“I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”
When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.”
There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script.
Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.”
What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.”
Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity.”
“These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this.
Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”
In Cambodia, only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman?
“Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.”
The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.
This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia. Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue.
“No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change.”
Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”
Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003.
“I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006.”
“Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.”
Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket.
Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema.
“I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.”
As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say.
“We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people. To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search=Search
Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com
see his website http://speakingadventure.com/burma.htm