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Cambodian Government Says No to Khmer Rouge Movie

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.

by Antonio Graceffo

June 17, 2008 

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 the most prominent ones in SEA and then in the world too. I really prefer Khmer movies even though their quality is not as 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 to watch a movie is very expensive for me, but I can spend it to support Khmer movies.”

“When I was living in Cambodia, 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 copied from outside (foreign movies). Still, the quality of the Khmer movie is still low. Another big problem is ticket cost. It is so expensive.”      

Mak also attributed the rise of foreign movies to the lower cost of watching DVDs rather than attending the cinema. “I watch DVDs because DVDs are 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 I heard that most of the cinemas in Phnom Penh have been closed, I was in tears.” Said Mak. “I couldn’t sleep and eat. I called a Khmer screen writer to ask her about this bad news, and she told me that “Khmer film is dead again”

When asked if he believed a new movie about the Khmer Rouge was important, Mak answered. “I think it ‘s important. It may just look like 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, the main character’s 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?” concluded Mak.

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.” Said Mak.

“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, 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.” Harsh words from a bitter monk.

Mak 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, which may present a version of the history 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 monk, once again, took a harder line. “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.” Said the monk.

“Interestingly enough, the French Film Commission have been over here to advise on setting up a Cambodian Film Commission. 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, S-21, there were many Khmer Rouge movies for sale. 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 a 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.”

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

Checkout Antonio’s website http://speakingadventure.com/

Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

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