This is an essay written for my exhibition: Spectral Memories of the Screen: The After-Life of Cambodia’s Heritage Cinemas that was on display at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh from 3 July to 19 July 2017. To check out the digital version of the exhibition just click here.
Going to the Movies:
Learning about the History of Cinema in Cambodia through Memories
People have been going to the movies in Cambodia since the era of the French Colonial Protectorate. A few cinemas across the country were built to attract an audience of French colonial bureaucrats, businessmen and local cinephiles. The real boom in the cinema industry began after Cambodia won independence from the French in 1953. In the following years there was a strong push from the state and government, led by His Royal Highness King Norodom Sihanouk, to develop local film talent and a local film industry. This effort coincided with state-sponsored development of industry, education, architecture, roads and transportation, and more. For example, in the 1960s the government subsidized movie ticket sales for local cinema owners, which was one factor that affected the growth of single-screen cinemas in provincial capitals all across Cambodia, making the experience of going to the movies much more accessible than it had been in previous years.
Combined with state support, individuals with vision and drive took up their passions and began to make their own movies. Khmer-language films burst onto the local cinema scene in the late 1950s to early ’60s and gained wider and wider traction inside Cambodia and throughout the region. Many people today refer to this period as the Golden Age of Cinema. By the early 1970s some actors, like the esteemed Ms. Dy Saveth, were shooting three films per day! More than 400 films were produced and released between 1960 and 1975 in Cambodia, and today you can find clips from some of these heritage films on YouTube or find high-quality films in the archives here at the Bophana Center. It is suspected that only about 10%, or 40, films have survived to the present. A fantastic resource on this era is the book Cultures of Independence: An Introduction to Cambodian Arts and Culture in the 1950s and 1960s (2001) written and published by Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh, which includes many wonderful interviews with the people who created and experienced that era.
A renewed interest in the history of pop culture, film, music, art, and architecture has inspired documentary and feature films such as Le Sommeil D’Or (Golden Slumbers, 2011) a documentary made by Davy Chou, The Last Reel (2014) a feature film directed by Kulikar Sotho, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (2014) a documentary directed by John Pirozzi, and The Man Who Built Cambodia (2015) a short documentary directed by Christopher Rompré.
Many efforts are on the rise in Cambodia to engage the public with the history of arts, cinema, and architecture and to work for better preservation. Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) takes people around Phnom Penh to showcase the stunning architectural history of the city. RoungKon Project (www.roungkonproject.com) works to document heritage cinemas and record related oral histories. AmazingCambodia is a Facebook page with extensive photographic archives of heritage buildings and culture. And an event called មួយម៉ឺនអាល័យ (Muoy Meun Alay, Ten-Thousand Regrets) is organized every year by the Preiah Soriya group to bring heritage films to the public.
These efforts, films, and research projects have been an incredible source of inspiration and knowledge for me. In 2013 Davy Chou’s film Golden Slumbers inspired me to think about memory, shadow, light, and how public spaces like movie theaters have had many lives. In 2015, after spending time away from research on cinema, I felt compelled to learn more about the history of the industry in Cambodia, including the history of movie theaters, but also people’s memories and connections to the cinema industry, both audiences and professionals. I wanted to learn about memory work and the challenges and special opportunities that memory work and oral history represent.
As a writer and researcher, it’s important to dig up as many resources as possible that reflect historical fact, both archival and contemporary, but memory is also a valid a doorway to understanding the past. There are many examples of places, peoples, cultures, and eras where documents are missing or weren’t used at all. Many cultures have long, rich histories of oral storytelling and only more recent histories of wide-spread literacy. Even though it can seem like literacy and written documents are the best, most advanced signs of culture, that is a biased point of view. We should not push oral histories and memories to the periphery of our knowledge because we assume that written documents are more true or more reliable.
Some things exist only in memory. The challenges of engaging with memory compared to reading a book or watching a film reel are extensive and, at times, overwhelming. Furthermore, since memory cannot be trusted to tell the absolute truth, it complicates a researcher’s job. What is our purpose when we take the focus away from providing insight? When we have no intention to become an expert? Objectivity remains an important goal, a concept to think about critically. But memory work is possibly a different way of doing things, of initiating, of asking questions and listening. Traditionally, we are supposed to separate our emotions and intuitions from our work as academics. But, as a poet, to me this seems like a deception, because they can never be separate. In fact, memory work is emotional and intimately personal for both the researcher and the subject. Witnessing the many ways that people remember and sitting with them to bear through the joys and the sadness of their stories has made me question the perceived boundary between researcher and subject. Some days, the boundary evaporates, and I learn as much about myself, my own histories, as I do about the history of cinema in Cambodia.
There is no single method of evoking memory, no one way to do oral histories. At the very least, it’s important to go places and ask people if they want to remember with you, if they want to share. For my research, sometimes it was enough to ask someone how many movie theaters were in town and when were the theaters destroyed or shut down? To this question, Mr. Som Sangvasak, who lives and works in Battambang, spoke about the cinemas in Battambang city reopening after the war and genocide of the 1970s. His best cinema memories are from the 1980s when he and his school friends would pile in to see a Russian or Vietnamese film, or occasionally a Hong Kong film. For him, the cinema was a sauna because there was no air conditioning. After the movie finished the audience would pour out of the exits, soaking wet. But it was worth it, he said, because they kept going back over and over again.
Another method I tried was to invite someone to watch a series of film clips from the Cambodian heritage films of the 1960s-’70s with me, on my cellphone where I had saved a copy of the YouTube video that I had edited together from digital copies of films. This activity brought many different memories to the surface. One man who works for the Ministry of Culture in Kampong Cham cried tears of joy while watching the clips with me. He was overcome with emotion, mostly happy, because he had not known where or how to find any remnants of the films of his childhood, films that he saw in the theaters in Kampong Cham city.
In another experience, a group of grandmothers preparing food on the temple grounds in Steung Treng, which took me eight hours to get to on a bus, agreed to chat with me. We watched the video together. The four women tossed memories back and forth between them: who they thought was the sexiest leading man; who was the most virtuous leading lady; how much the tickets cost to see a movie in town compared to the price of a kilo of rice or pork; what films were screened in the 1980s after the war; and the sad fate of the old cinema in town. One of the group was very quiet during this exchange, and I asked her if she liked the film clips, if she had ever been to the cinema in Steung Treng. She told me that she had been in high school in Phnom Penh during those years. Then she went silent. She said, “I don’t really remember anything anymore. It isn’t clear to me what I remember.” In that way she helped me understand that silence is also a story, a memory in its own right.
I didn’t heroically discover any old cinemas in Cambodia. The buildings have been there all along for the communities that are deeply connected to them. Movie theaters are repositories of memory. Whether a memory about the hot, steamy crowds inside or a memory of a film that touched the heart deeply, or the experience of youth, excitement, and connection that cinema brings. As long as people remember, then no matter how many lives a cinema has, as a hair salon, a restaurant, a bank, a public park, the building will always carry the specter of cinema within the community. Even long after the building is gone. These specters can teach us to ask critical questions about urbanism, modernity, economic development, pop culture, and how macro-systems and historical processes are experienced intimately by individuals and communities. Specters of the screen can inspire us to embrace the complexities of our pasts and can encourage us to face our futures with a deeper understanding of the challenges at hand.
I had the privilege, in these past months in Cambodia, to watch people light up with the memory of going to the movies. And after hearing their stories, I also had the privilege of standing in some of the places their memories call home. Walking inside these old cinemas, I felt almost as if I could see the specters of their stories playing between the shadow and the light in the darkness. Maybe it is impossible to photograph memories. But to capture a feeling, both haunted and joyful, I took photos of the light within the dark. I share these photos today in the hopes that you become curious, that you feel something of the past and the present collide, that you leave with an appreciation for memory, as fleeting as it may be.