This week marks exactly 50 years since the removal of the Cambodian head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, after a vote by the National Assembly on 18 March 1970. Then-Prime Minister Lon Nol became the effective head of state, ultimately leading to the institution of the Khmer Republic later that year. The event also saw the beginning of one of the worst civil war in the country’s history. The conflict affected all sectors in Cambodia at that time – and the film industry was no exception, although the impacts were distinctive. Taing Rinith explores Cambodia’s cinemas set against the backdrop of war.
It was one evening in September 1973. 13-year-old Tang Muyly was dressing up for the theatre. A new American film had just opened at Phnom Penh’s cinema, close to her house, and she could not wait to see it.
She was waiting impatiently for her older sister, who was taking too long to dress. And then – bang! – a deafening explosion shook her home and the nearby buildings. There was a bomb attack at the cinema and her sister’s tardiness had just saved her life.
“I heard that the attack was the work of a Khmer Rouge agent,” Muyly, now a 63-year-old retired housewife, tells GT2. “I also heard that the attacker placed the bomb in the cinema before running out.”
Cinemas were often targeted during the period characterised by the conflict between Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge’s guerrilla force. From one day to the next, the battles were edging closer to the capital; however, they did not stop people from going to see a movie, until the day the ultra-Maoist group gained victory and drew the rest of the country into its darkest age.
From the Golden Era to the Communist Era
The 1960s were known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Cambodia’s film industry. Several local production companies started up and film theatres were built across the country. Over 300 films were made and entrance price at the cinemas were affordable for people of all classes. It was also the time that many legendary directors, such as Ly Bun Yim, made a name for themselves. Yim’s groundbreaking films included 12 Sisters, Sobasith and Orn Euy Srey Orn.
“My films, as well as other movies made at that time found success in both Cambodia and abroad,” Yim says. “The new technologies also allowed us to make films never seen before in Cambodia. It was the best time in my life.”
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s leader, also made films, which he wrote, directed and produced himself. Between 1966 and 1970, he made nine features films, including Ombre Sur Angkor (1967), Rose de Bokor, Crepuscule (Twilight) (1969) and Joie de Vivre. However, his work came to an abrupt end when his government was deposed in 1970 by American-backed Lon Nol.
In the following years, bombing by Americans fighting the Vietnam wars and Cambodia’s own civil war disrupted urban society, forcing refugees to pour into Phnom Penh.
However, going to cinema remained extremely popular despite the armed conflicts and regular attacks on picture houses. For many people living in Phnom Penh at that time, especially the youth, cinemas offered a place for them to escape the stress and anxiety caused by war.
Dy Meth, a retired pharmacist and an active cinemagoer in the 1970s, remembers lining up for almost an hour just to buy a film ticket.
“We knew that we were facing death while enjoying the films, but we didn’t care much because we were surrounded by death all of the time,” he recalls.
Professor Sambo Manara, a prominent Cambodian historian, says that taking in a film was one of the few entertainment forms available to everyone at that time, including the poor refugees.
“Old people who had been through war before were very afraid, but young people, including myself as a teenage boy, wanted an escape from the harsh reality of life,” Manara says. “The tickets were very cheap and even the poorest in society could afford one of them.”
Manara points out that by 1973, not many local films were being screened in Phnom Penh’s cinemas. In part due to the American influence, the country saw huge imports of Western films, especially cowboy films and war films which instilled a sense of patriotism in younger viewers and a desire to become like the heroes they watched on the silver screen.
“Many young men watched the films and then enlisted in the army,” Manara says. “Yet others went in the opposite direction, trying to escape from the army trucks looking for unemployed men to be drafted into Lon Nol’s army.”
However, the cameras were still rolling in some of the local production companies, despite despite budget and travel restrictions. According to veteran film makers Ingrid Muan and Ly Daravuth, directors and producers flew to Battamabang and Kampot to shoot several movies during a single trip before returning to Phnomm Penh to process and screen their new films.
“In 1973-4, the [Lon Nol Government] threatened to close all entertainment places, because they had become a target for Khmer Rouge infiltrators wishing to attack the urban population,” Muan and Daravuth write in their book Film in South East Asia: View from the Region. “Movie house owners argued successfully that the government tax on movie tickets (which was no longer being funnelled into local productions) contributed significantly to the war effort and that therefore cinemas should be allowed to continue on a full schedule but with tighter security.”
Nevertheless, in late 1974 and early 1975, cinemas began to close as audiences stayed away because the war was now too close to the city for comfort. After the Khmer Rouge takeover, Phnom Penh was depopulated and picture houses abandoned. The only films that Cambodian people would see over the next few years were propaganda projects and footage of diplomatic visits made by the Khmer Rouge.
Film stars were viewed by the Khmer Rouge as being under Western and capitalist influence, thus making them the enemies of Angkar and targets of execution. While some movie stars, such as Dy Saveth and Sak Sysboung, were able to get out of the country before it was taken over by the ultra-Maoists, many others were not so lucky. Many iconic stars, such as Kong Sam Oeun, Nop Nem, Chea Yuthorn and his wife, Som Vansodany and Vichara Dany, were believed to have perished under the communist regime.
Cambodia’s film industry was considered dead and was not revived until the 1990s.
“I cried when I saw the first film after Khmer Rouge,” says Tang Muyly, the cinemagoer who narrowly escaped death in the 1970s. “I was also very sad that many stars I loved were no longer here with us.”