Cambodian Government Says no to Khmer Rouge Movie

In Adventures in Asia on May 16, 2008 at 12:45 pm




By Antonio Graceffo


The Red Sense: A new film by Australian Khmer director, Tim Pek, deals with the subjects of forgiveness and revenge, in the wake of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. A Khmer girl living in Australia finds out that her father’s killer, posing as a refugee, was also resettled in Australia. She must decide if she should kill him or forgive him. The film is extremely significant and timely, particularly in the face of the current Khmer Rouge trials.


After paying his fees and filling the necessary paper work, Tim has waited months for the Phnom Penh release of his film. So far, it looks as if the government simply doesn’t want the film to air.


In the days when the country was lead by Prince Sihanouk, Khmer cinema was on par with cinema in other countries. Today, Khmer cinema is in a state of steady decline. Tim Pek had hoped that “The Red Sense” would shake things up. His movie, filmed mostly in Khmer, would be a palatable way of introducing the Cambodian population, as well as the film making community, to a whole new style of movies. Perhaps “The Red Sense” could have been the catalyst to kick off a new era of Khmer cinema.


The export potential of the current crop of Khmer films is zero. The domestic population loves to watch movies, but foreign movies and DVDs are leading in popularity, with Khmer  movies falling behind.


Mak, a Khmer university student said that he loves watching Khmer movies, and he does so to support Khmer cinema. “I want Khmer movie to be a most prominent ones in SEA and then in the world too. I really prefer Khmer movies even their quality are not good as foreign movies.”


One problem he sights with Khmer movies is the cost of attending the cinema. “Actually I’m poor, so $1 or more than $1 for watching a movie is very expensive for me, but I can spend it to support Khmer movies.”


“I didn’t like to go to the cinema.” Said a Khmer monk, now living abroad. “It had no importance for me to watch the silly movies. Mostly they showed horror or ghost movies and only took from outside (foreign movies). On the other hands, the quality of the Khmer movie is still low. The big problem is ticket cost. It is so expensive.”      


“When I heard that most of the cinemas in Phnom Penh have been closed, I was in tears, I couldn’t sleep and eat. Suddenly I call a Khmer screen writer to ask her about this bad news, and she told me that “Khmer film is died again”


“I watch DVD because DVD is cheaper than cinema. I watch DVDs for other movies besides Khmer movies such as, Thai, China, Korea, American (Hollywood), Indian. I never watch foreign movies at the cinema, just only DVDs.”


The monk echoed the sentiment that he preferred to watch foreign DVDs. “Mostly I prefer American and Chinese.”


When asked if he believed a new movie about the Khmer Rouge was important, he answered. “I think it ‘s important. If may think it is just a small problem of one person, but if we think more than this we will know that the film talks about Khmer people who were the victims in Khmer Rouge. We can compare that, her (the main character of the film) father, a Khmer, was killed in Khmer Rouge, and her father’s killer was also Khmer, and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were Khmer.”


Because of widespread publicity on the internet, many Khmers and people around the world have heard of the film and seen the trailer on youtube.


“I really want to watch the Red Sense. I have heard of it for a long time, and I have watched the trailer. It seems interesting. Some people told me that it’s not the same as other Khmer Rouge movies, filmed in the past.”


“I think it is good for Khmer young people to see a movie like this because they have to know their history. What happened in the past? Why did it happen? When they know about their history they will use those experiences to change or develop other event in the present and future.”


“It’s the true history, why be afraid to know?”


Most Khmer movies are either slapstick comedies, ghost stories, or romances where everyone cries. The question is, do all Khmer films follow these limited genre lines because this is all the audience wants? Or, do the Khmers watch these types of movies simply because the filmmakers fail to offer them something different?


“I think, most Khmer people like these kinds of because they can see the things from their everyday lives. Second these movies are easy to make. They cost very little and most of them are not intertwined with politics. Another reason, Khmer movies teeter on the brink extinction.”


“Khmer people just don’t know any other kinds of movies. That is one reason that people don’t like to watch other kinds of movies. To watch a movie is like to read a book. A good book is up to a good writer and a good reader (a knowledgeable reader). With movies, if people know what kind of movies they are watching, they will like it.”


Mak believes that the Khmer filmmakers are afraid to take a risk by producing something new. It seems safer to stay with the established formulas.


The monk was less forgiving. He attributed the low quality of Khmer movies to lack of knowledge and paralysis from political fear.


“The producers don’t have enough knowledge to make other stories.” Said the Monk.


One of the very annoying aspects of Khmer films is that they are all dubbed, with all movies being done by the same two men and one woman. The voices of women and children are done in an ear piercingly high falsetto, while male characters all speak in an impossibly low bass, which comes from deep within the caverns at the center of the  earth.


A foreigner working in the radio joked, “We are actually dubbing the DJs voices now.  Okay, being serious now, I’m pretty tired of the dubbing for movies and programs. I feel sorry for Khmer film makers.”


One reason the monk gave for the weak story lines was political fear. “If they know how to make deeper movies, they dare not do so, because they will be taken over by politics. All their stories only support the crazy government.”


“This way, they keep the movies stupid until this government, One Eye Man, Hun Sen, is over. We would like to see change in our country, but it is impossible to do.”




He summed up the death of Khmer cinema like this.


“Why have the Khmer cinemas been closed? Because they have no Khmer movies to show? Why don’t they have Khmer movies to show? Because no there are no people to watch them. Why are there no people to watch? Because Khmer movies are simple, sappy, and silly.”


Beyond questions about cinema, the problems Tim has bringing out his film make us wonder if the Cambodian government is afraid of a film dealing with the Khmer Rouge, or presenting a version of the history is which differs from the official government line.


“He who controls the present, controls the past.” George Orwell, from “1984”


A foreigner working in Khmer cinema said, “It’s a shame that Tim can’t get the film screened over here, but then this is the country where the Khmer Rouge period has been erased from school text books.”


Mak said: “There have been some Khmer Rouge movies made in Cambodia. They were all the same, just talking about what happened in the Khmer Rouge, all the suffering and pain of Khmer people…but they don’t talk about who were the offenders, who was behind the murders, who was leading the Khmer Rouge?”


“The Khmer Rouge is not too recent, but people are afraid to think about it or make movies the about Khmer Rouge. Democracy in Cambodia is not the same as in USA or Europe. Sometimes people can’t say anything about how they feel. Many people have died because of politics, so they are afraid. They don’t say anything.”


“This is also the experience I have dealing with Khmers in Cambodia, I think this is because Khmer people don’t like reading or researching yet. Khmer youngsters growing up in Australia can learn about their cultural history, sometimes better and more clearly than Khmers in Cambodia.


“Interestingly enough, the French Film Commission have been over here to advise on setting up a Cambodian Film Commission. It could happen before the end of this year. Sounds like a good idea in principle, but could easily be hijacked by the CPP if it is deemed to have commercial potential.” Reported a foreign film worker.


“Many movies have been made about the Khmer Rouge.” Said the Monk. “Three days ago, when I went to visit the Toul Slang Museum, S21, there were many Khmer Rouge movies there were about 6 or 7 packs. They talked about events before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge. Mostly they were taken from outside. But I think they cut out some important points, especially involving the top ranking officers who are still alive and working in the current government.”


“There is a new movie which has just been made in Cambodian by Swedish producer. It talks about a Khmer family which was separated from each other before the Khmer Rouge. But it doesn’t talk about the Khmer Rouge, only the life of a family until now.”


“For old people, maybe they are still afraid. But for young adults, 30 and under, we would like to see the real background of the Khmer Rouge story.” 


The monk went on to explain, “the new youngsters do not know the real history. At school they teach us only the events that happened, and that the Khmer Rouge killed people. We also learned the dates that we were freed from Pol Pot, and who helped us. They don’t have enough open documents to study. So, how can we know our history? Until now some younger Khmer people have no feeling about the Khmer Rouge. They have nearly forgotten it.”


The stated the most powerful reason he believes the red Sense can’t be shown. “You can show any movie in Cambodia, AS LONG AS you don’t have any impact on the government or Top Officials.”






We don’t still have a good studio to make a film. I think they only show the good place with sightseeing at the riverside to the world and portrating the poverty to the world to get the domation with rice farmi. And if they go to the different locations, they have no enough funds to do that. So one Film, one Location.   We do know that it is the same place.   


Is there any reason that the government or others wouldn’t want your movie shown in Cambodia?







Article Submission: Cambodian Cinema in Decline


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:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website



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