Preventive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 have caused cinemas in Cambodia to close their doors for many months, leading to uncertainty over the Kingdom’s film industry. During this time, film buffs have to make do with streaming services like Netflix. However, it does not change the fact that cinemas were once a part of Cambodian life. As a result of the wars, many cinemas, films and actors have been almost forgotten. However, a young Cambodian man refuses to let this happen. He has been on a journey to document Cambodian cinema in a book, which he believes will link the present to the past and correct modern misconceptions of the industry. A story by Taing Rinith.
The year was 1962. In Phnom Penh, people formed a long line in front of the Cine Hawaii, one of the 30 cinemas in Cambodia at the time. They were waiting to buy to a ticket to see Kboun Chivit (Raft Life), the latest romantic film made by filmmaker Ourn Kanthorn, the owner of Kangchak Film Studio. Those who managed to get a ticket would witness the debut of 18-year-old Dy Saveth, who would go on to make a big name for herself on Cambodia’s silver screen.
Saveth said at that time she was very surprised to see such a long queue of people.
“The street was crowded with people,” she said. “The film would be shown for one month, and its producers kept smiling because they had made a massive profit.”
“Although there were many cinemas in Cambodia at that time, not many local films were being made. Most of the films premiered at the time were imported from India and China, with Khmer dubbing,” she added.
The years that followed Saveth’s debut were known as the “Golden Age” of Cambodian cinema when it became a big part of people’s lives. Several local production companies started up and film theatres were built across the country. Over 300 films were made and admission was affordable for people of all classes. It was also when many legendary directors and film stars, including Saveth, became household names. Even during the civil war between 1970 and 1975, cinemas offered people an escape, despite the Lon Nol Government threatening to close all entertainment places, because they had become a target for Khmer Rouge infiltrators wishing to attack the urban population.
However, the “Golden Age” did not last. The genocidal Khmer Rouge regime put an end to the cinema in the Kingdom and saw the murder of many film stars and filmmakers. Despite a short boom in the 1990s, the film industry has never returned to its former glory in the Kingdom.
Local cinemas – once a part of Cambodian life – have been disappearing and being replaced with skyscrapers and other modern facilities. However, a Cambodian youth, despite being born in the 90s, is refusing to let them be forgotten.
Srin Sokmean, a 28-year-old English teacher and journalist, has spent the last ten years collecting information, records and photographs about cinemas in Cambodia. When he started doing this as an enthusiastic 18-year-old cinemagoer, it was only a hobby.
“Riding a cycle to watch a film at Borey Keyla is one of my earliest memories, and it was not long before cinema became my passion,” Sokmean said.
“I embarked on collecting newspapers and magazines, and when I was introduced to a computer in high school, I also started using the internet to help with my collection,” he says.
As time passed and Sokmean gained more life experience, he began to understand how significant his collection is in the study of history.
“In Cambodia, when one speaks of culture, he or she usually refers to traditional dances, ancient art and temples. But, for me, old cinemas, on which very few pay attention, were at one point a part of the people’s culture,” he explains.
“I believe that everyone has to go to see a film in the cinema at least once,” he adds.
And that was why Sokmean decided to write and publish Here’s the Cinema. Written in Khmer, the 180-page book chronicles and documents cinemas as well as the film industry in Cambodia.
While most studies on the Kingdom’s silver screen focus mainly on its golden age in the 60s, Here’s the Cinema goes far beyond that into the past. It looks into this field during the period between 1909, when Brignon, the first cinema in Cambodia was founded, and 2017, when Cine Lux, the last of the surviving classic cinemas, ceased operations.
The book gives details on 40 cinemas that used to put on shows for Cambodian audiences over the last century along with their pictures, and include the lists of films they had premiered, something that has not been done before.
Here’s the Cinema also features interviews with legendary Cambodian filmmakers, actors, voice actors and even cinema painters. Dy Saveth, a veteran actress from the 1960s, who was lucky enough to escape the Khmer Rouge and return to acting after the end of civil war, wrote the foreword for this book.
“I am really impressed by Sokmean, who came up for the idea for this book,” Saveth says.
“By writing this book, I want to create the main reference for people who want
to conduct research on this topic,” Sokmean adds. “Not many young people nowadays are interested in the period before they were born.”
“I also want Here’s Cinema to help old people share their memories with the younger generation to ensure that history will never be forgotten,” he says.