Film Festival Diary: Works Evoke Pride in History, Pain at Being Left Behind

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The red carpet reception at the opening of the Cambodian International Film Festival on June 28, 2022. (Josephine Baliling)
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The Cambodia International Film Festival is headed into its final screenings on Sunday. The works showcased so far have explored poverty and development in Cambodia, pride in the country’s history, and a diversity of emotions felt in lives across the nation. Some 144 different films are being shown in 11 different locations over the course of five days. The following have been some of the highlights:

Covid-19’s Mark on Art

Bophana Center’s small screening room was full of curious Cambodians and foreigners on Wednesday evening for a documentary about the effects of Covid-19 on artists throughout Cambodia, including filmmakers. In a country where a large share of money for the arts comes from foreigners, the pandemic was particularly hard on the artistic community. While workers in the tourism industry were granted government assistance, artists were not.

“Covid-19’s Mark on Art” accentuates optimism: A clarinetist at first plays in an empty gallery, his only audience the unappreciated paintings on the walls. But the space is then converted into a cafe, and rather than soliciting small groups of tourists, the business draws on Cambodians’ love of coffee to bring them in, and the paintings become an added bonus. The same shot of the clarinetist is repeated, but this time he is not alone in the frame: There is a delighted human audience.

Short-Film Showcase

A sizable crowd gathered at the Aeon Mall’s Major Cineplex Thursday evening to see the unveiling of seven short films by six Cambodians and one foreigner from Japan. Short films rarely make a profit, but to film lovers they serve as a sort of business card: a proof of concept for an aspiring director to show their talents.

The seven business cards at this year’s festival were “Sound of the Night,” “Sunrise in My Mind,” “The General Khleang Moeung,” “Candlelight,” “Life.Love.Bliss,” “The Little Circus” and “The River.” The visuals and emotions ranged widely: at one moment, a salon worker gently washes the hair of a handsome customer to whom she can’t admit her attraction; in another, an undead Cambodian army cuts down an invading Siamese force.

The first film of the evening, “Sound of the Night,” follows a noodle seller wandering Phnom Penh by night, selling mostly to prostitutes and their pimps. For some time he is silent; but as the film progresses, we see his judgments. Watching him watch the thugs and vagrants of Phnom Penh do their business in the shadows of under-construction skyscrapers, one feels the pain of those left behind by the last decade’s economic growth.

The third film of the evening showcased an opposite reaction: nationalistic pride. In “The General Khleang Moeung,” a digitally animated Cambodian army and its undead allies fight off a numerically superior Siamese force in a retelling of a classic Cambodian legend. When Lim Heng, the director, approached Smart for funding, he pitched it as a Cambodian Marvel film — only instead of superheroes they would draw on traditional Khmer stories. “General Khleang” shows both technical virtuosity in the local industry and the drumbeat of pride felt toward Cambodian history.

White Building

As the festival’s darling, even festival-goers who came 15 minutes early for the “White Building” premiere at Exchange Square’s Legend Cineplex on Thursday were turned away from seeing the film and a Q&A with some of its cast as well as its writer and director, Neang Kavich.

The film is a slow-paced glimpse into the final days of Phnom Penh’s historical White Building, which was torn down in 2017 to clear space for another of Phnom Penh’s high rises. Once an architectural jewel of the city when it was constructed in the 1960s to house the nation’s artists, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge it fell into disrepair and became associated with poverty.

As demolition looms, the residents are faced with a stark choice that is familiar for many evictees: agree to vacate their homes for a price they consider far too low, or continue negotiating and risk being thrown out with no compensation at all.

Some scenes in the film can feel unnaturally elongated — lingering for longer than feels comfortable. But even as it toes the line of self-indulgence, the slowness forces one to look at and ponder things we might usually walk past without notice in Phnom Penh. In one scene, the film lingers on a market vendor diligently slicing up meat and leaving them on a rooftop to dry, making us marvel at how citizens of Phnom Penh use so much of the city’s space in creative ways. From one perspective, the clutter could be seen as a nuisance; but in the film’s, there’s value in the resourcefulness.

A full listing of the festival’s screenings is available on its website,

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