The local film industry continues to create waves in and out of the country. Many films and filmmakers have been recognised for their impressive creativity and social relevance. And this year, another young filmmaker is set to show the region the real beauty and artistry of Cambodian films. As Hang Sokharo prepares for his trip to the SeaShorts 2018 in Malaysia, he talks about ‘Khema’ and his passion for films – which he unexpectedly developed – with Agnes Alpuerto and Say Tola.
More often than not, we discover our passion in our early years. Some of us are ‘innate’ painters, musicians and athletes – recognising our talents after stumbling upon a colour palette or an old vinyl record or a boxing glove when we were five or so.
But for young filmmaker Hang Sokharo, his love for visual storytelling rooted in his hate for such.
“When I was young, I really didn’t like watching drama series or movies. There were so many local and international soap operas being shown on mainstream television. But most of them were about heroes and villains, about betrayals in families and societies. Those themes seemed unrealistic and disconnected,” said Sokharo, now 25.
Sokharo, instead, focused his time on writing and reading. He filled his notebooks with daily musings and novel reviews. He read every book he found interesting. He wrote every word his heart desired to scream out loud.
“And this passion for writing and reading became my foundation in becoming an outstanding student in Khmer literature. I also won in several competitions back in high school,” he shared.
In 2011, Sokharo got a scholarship to study at the Department of Media and Communication in Phnom Penh. He took up journalism, very eager to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Little did Sokharo know that he would be led to the very thing he dreaded the most – television and film.
His major required him to study visual storytelling and cinema. He was introduced to the basics of production works, cinematography techniques, video and photo editing, and screenplays. And though he still felt alienated with how television and movie productions run, Sokharo started to get curious about storylines.
“In 2013, I had a chance to study at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand for a four-month exchange programme. I attended a film critic class. We weren’t there to learn how to make films, but how to watch films. We were made to watch several films in different languages, then we shared our thoughts about them. This is how my interest grew. I wanted to learn more about what cinema is and how I can contribute to its growth.”
When Sokharo came back to Cambodia, he jumped right in to filmmaking. He served as director of photography for a silent short film project for his class. Enthusiastic but unsure, Sokharo applied all that he learned from DMC and from his exchange programme in Bangkok. The film won the best cinematography award at the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival a year after, much to Sokharo’s surprise.
“I saw my footages on the big screen. I felt proud. However, I still felt that something was missing. It was quite artistic – the shots, the scoring. But I believed that the story itself lacked creativity and richness. It was then that I decided to write and direct my own film.”
It takes a brave and bold heart to create a film, said Sokharo, and he was determined to prove that he had one. So he ventured into making his first own film, ‘Bubble’, and used all the creativity he believed he had. He poured his heart and mind into his love project, even if he didn’t know when and how to say “Cut!” during shoots.
‘Bubble’, a story of a poor widow who bravely faced all struggles just to give her son a good life, was screened at an international film festival in Malaysia in 2014. The film became the foundation of his newly discovered passion. From the boy in Kandal province who disliked watching television and movies because of their seemingly monotonous and half-baked scripts, Sokharo found himself joining the bandwagon – or more than that.
After seeing his first short film being shown to a huge international audience, he felt more inspired and motivated to continue what he had started. He wrote and directed ‘Khema’, a short film about a little girl who dreamt of becoming a classical dancer.
It took him a year to complete the concept and just four days to shoot all the scenes. Even without a camera of his own, Sokharo strived hard to get all the angles he wanted and needed, not minding the fact that he had to sell his mobile phone just to finance the production.
“It was just actually part of my research at school. I came up with a script that reflected my own experiences and emotions. When I first started the script, many people didn’t like it. It did pain me, of course, but I really loved the storyline so I still pushed through with my film,” Sokharo said.
But the version of ‘Khema’ he submitted to his professor didn’t suit well to his personal taste as a budding filmmaker. Sokharo wanted more than a “school project”. He believed in his concept and he believed his talent, so after he graduated, Sokharo sat back in front of his computer again and recovered all the footages he took.
He re-edited the film more than a hundred times, before he finally saw what he wanted to see in his masterpiece – the version of ‘Khema’ that speaks right to the heart of its viewers; the version of ‘Khema’ that bears emotions even without the use of full dialogues; the version of ‘Khema’ that makes its very own creator happy and proud.
Sokharo, who was just 23 that time, decided to stick into silent short films. He said he opted not to use any formal, straight conversations in his script because he wanted to highlight emotions instead of words.
“Because I didn’t want to use too many words and dialogues, I made sure all my frames and all the scenes tell a story. That was my goal. I focused on the facial expressions and body movements of the characters. I didn’t want to box them into words and script. It’s just a natural flow of emotions, not hindered by phrases or punctuation marks. I just wanted it to look so real and authentic.”
And it seems like Sokharo has chosen the right path for his work of art. After winning Best Screenplay at Chaktomuk Short Film Festival last year, Khema has just been nominated to be part of the SeaShort Film Festival 2018 in Malaysia. It will be shown in front of other filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts along with more than a dozen short films from Southeast Asian countries next month.
Sokharo will also be flying to Long Beach, California in September for the Cambodian Town Film Festival, where ‘Khema’ is expected to tug at the heartstrings of Cambodian immigrants in the US.
“I like ‘Khema’ a lot. I spent a lot of time with it – editing it numerous times and seeing it transforming into something good and something bad before it became what it is now. Because of ‘Khema’, I learned so many things about myself, about who I really am as a person and as a filmmaker. I am just very proud of what we have achieved together. I am happy.”