Going to the Movies: Learning about the History of Cinema in Cambodia through Memories

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

Mohaosrop Sihamoni Cinema
Refurbished and renovated by new owners for the 2004 release of Tum Tiev, a star-crossed lovers tale that takes place in the Cambodian countryside, the screen inside of Mohaosrop Sihamoni Cinema in Kampong Cham glows, luminescent under a ceiling of warm light. រោង​មហោស្រព​ព្រះ​ហាក្សត្រ​​សីហមុនី​ បានតុប​តែង​លម្អ​ និង​ជួសជុល​ឡើង​វិញ​ក្នុង​ឆ្នាំ​២០០៤ ​ដើម្បី​បញ្ចាំង​ ខ្សែភាពយន្ត​ទុំ​ទាវ​ ជាមួយនឹង​ផ្ទាំងសំពត់ស ដែលមាន​ពន្លឺ​​​ស្រទន់។

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.

Battambang Cinema
The facade of Battambang Cinema shows signs of aging, but audiences still have an opportunity to see a film every now and then in this single-screen theater. The auntie who sells snacks from the foyer of the cinema told us that if the Khmer movie they screen is high quality with good storytelling then maybe people show up to get a ticket. But with soaring electricity costs and a quickly deteriorating ceiling, it’s more and more difficult to keep the cinema afloat. ជួនកាល​មាន​ការបញ្ចាំងភាពយន្ត​​នៅ​ក្នុងរោងកុន​បាត់ដំបង​ សម្រាប់​ទស្សនិកជន​។​ ស្ត្រីម្នាក់​ដែល​លក់​នំនែក នៅខាងមុខ​រោងកុន​បាន​និយាយ​ថា​ បើ​ខ្សែភាពយន្ត​ខ្មែរ​មាន​គុណភាពខ្ពស់​​​សាច់រឿង​ល្អ​នោះ ​នឹងមាន​​អ្នកទស្សនា​ច្រើន​។​​​​ ប៉ុន្តែដោយសារ​ថ្លៃ​អគ្គីសនី​កើនឡើង​​ និង​ពិដានរោងកុន​កាន់តែ​យ៉ាប់យ៉ឺន​​ពិបាក​ក្នុងការធ្វើ​ឱ្យរោងកុន​មានផលចំណេញ។

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.

Lone Piece of Celluloid
A lone piece of celluloid film hangs from the low ceiling beam of Mr. Ta Koy’s attic. The dust only disturbed by my own curious hands.
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Social History of Cinema: Kampong Cham

How do people relate to the past? Specifically here, in Kampong Cham city, the provincial capital of the same-named province. Cambodia has many pasts and people who have swam across those eras have had many lives. Remembering can at times seem like sinking in the water, and if it’s murky, then there is not much to tell. Or they remember but the words are like knives, are like rivers of grief, and silence speaks the full weight of loss.

At Nokor Bachey pagoda in Kampong Cham – 2km from the town center, I’m sitting with my shoes off, like everyone else. It’s comfortable. There’s a breeze blowing the slightly tattered ends of sacred red threads that are piled together, waiting. Just like this grandfather’s stack of fortune telling cards that he will unwind for three teenage girls plying him for futures. This temple was partially built during the Angkor empire (pre-Angkor Wat) and then surrounded over time by newer structures during the colonial period. It’s been recently painted and renovated a good amount of times.

I’ve traveled with members of the RoungKon Project from Phnom Penh. They are young Cambodians, all younger than me, yet I shrink like a perpetual novice. Not that I don’t know what I’m doing. But I don’t know what I’m doing. We all want to know more about the past. But I’m never sure if they are as concerned with time travel in memory as I am. I don’t know if the knotted and mossy fabrics of memory weigh down their minds day in and day out. Like they do mine. But then again, it could all be a challenge of translation. I do my best to speak Khmer, but I fail it time and again, the expression of my mad-scientist like wanderings in my own thoughts.

I do want to ask the elders what they remember. One man, the fortune teller, in his eighties, told us that he couldn’t remember clearly any moments that he wanted to share with us about the past in Kampong Cham. He said he knows the history of the temple and the history of the Pol Pot era and what happened then, but it’s foggy. When asked about his life, where he grew up and what he did, it’s difficult. I think those kinds of questions don’t really make sense. Everyone, all the elders, laughed when we asked to record one man’s voice for the future. They seemed to feel like it was silly and a bit uncomfortable. So, that’s when I bring in the video. Because I’m never sure how to start a conversation about memory.

I had this theoretical idea to use cinema – old popular films – as a gateway. Also as an object. I hold my cell phone in my hand and play a 13 min video that has clips from about 11 old films – films made between 1962 and 1974 in Cambodia, written, produced, and distributed around the country. These are Khmer language films with Khmer actors, musicians, crew, all. Cinema has a vibrant and textured social history.

In some ways democratic and many ways exclusive in its reach, cinema speaks and holds people’s memories in unique ways. Then it became my interest to ask: why? Why did you remember like that? What and how do people remember when they hold this object for a little while?

People sometimes say that everything was lost after the Pol Pot time. It doesn’t mean that that is a truth, but speaks more to the severity of the shock, loss, and trauma of surviving. Yet, I wonder, because if they saw something that did survive, what does it mean to them? What does it feel like to then remember? Is that a cruel question?

We watched the Cambodian cinema clip together, me, Yury, and two old men in the temple. They recalled the famous stars’ names, their favorites. But this time, the elder man took most notice of the clothing and the dancing. The beauty in the details. Captivated by the comedy, the sounds of jokes and clips of songs. From the sounds of it, the elderly man hadn’t seen too many films, but definitely a couple and knew about them from advertisements, posters, songs, dances. From that social fabric that cinema creates.

When the clip finished, I asked him what feelings he had from seeing those clips. And he spoke at some length. But the way he remembered was uniquely his own.

Why does he remember only two cinemas in the city when there were actually four? (I didn’t correct him, that’s not the point.) Is it possibly because those two are older cinemas or more accessible for someone from the village? The largest cinema in town, the Mohaosrap Sihamoni is obviously the biggest – maybe it was also the most elite? Just ideas. I didn’t ask any of this but it is interesting to think about. Maybe the connection to certain cinemas over others would illuminate the texture of this social history and its shadows and disparities more than whether any one person had the ability to see the films or not. Obviously my basic first theories are all pretty wrong, but that’s kind of the point of guessing to begin with.

The elderly man had feelings of remembering happier times. But he spoke of dance, gestures, kindness, respectful language. A time when life held the details like he can see in the movies in the clips. He remembers when people wove beautiful designs and wore them proudly. They didn’t have televisions, and they went to the theater to see these new things. But the dancing. When people danced he felt so happy. Compared to today where he feels…almost out of place. He said that 1970 changed everything. That once the war had entered the country that changes happened constantly.

One of my theoretical guesses that I had coming into this space of memory was: would memories of the 1960s help us understand how people experienced modernity? I guessed that it would illuminate how people experienced it then.

Now, memory work reveals multiple modernities and the ruptures between them. No memorializing and no oral history will reveal that time of “modernizing” in Cambodia without first revealing this time of modernity and how people conceptualize their space in the present. So what we learn is just as much about today as it is then, because there is no space that is not lived in. No memory that is not walking in the present.

I didn’t ask the elderly man to compare the past to today, but that’s what the object of cinema and his memory asked him to do. To walk in both places at once. To again sit in the spaces of rupture and loss and pull at the strings of nostalgia and meaning that somehow have crossed unimaginable boundaries and obstacles.

The way people interact with these clips says so much about the social fabric of cinema. As a contrast, the man who is now the President of the Ministry of Culture in Kampong Cham teared up when we sat with these film clips together. He became so emotional saying, “Oh, I used to watch this one! I’ve seen this one!” He exclaimed and asked to watch it again, to have it for his own. Luckily it’s on youtube and he had the app on his phone so we could share it.

The man who grew up in a village interacted with the idea of stars and stories, but connected most with the costumes, the language, and the dancing and music. The experience of watching the film did not mean so much to him.

Does cinema create social cohesion? Or create a tableau on which social relationships once again become mapped? Does cinema betray nationalism even as it creates the necessary imagination for the thing itself to become true? For example, it doesn’t have to mean urbanism at all, but there’s a fascinating relationship between cinema and urbanism in Cambodia and it can help us reflect on what urbanism means to any community and the way that pop culture and urbanism relate. There’s a fickleness to both of those things. Such a thing that touches many lives in many ways that reveal the inequity of development and the sting of the new as it replaces the old.

Lastly, working in the memory obliterates the other. Maybe this is not true, but it should be. We time travel together, away from walls, away from floors and ghosts and unborn cinemaphiles. Memory is like a time travel through the membranes birthed with trauma. It’s not the myth of our lives. I don’t think. But there is much left to ask. Much left to wonder. How do people create the past?

Copyright Jessica Austin 2017

Disclaimer: I will happily share my thoughts and work, if asked and credited.