Sunday, November 15, 2009

Movies that Matter


If art follows life then filmmaker Poan Phoung Bopha has made the most of a job complemented by the complexities, beauty and difficulties of Cambodian culture. Words by Luke Hunt and Lim Seang Heng.

Of her 20-films that were largely produced in the last five years their content was built on experiences that date back five decades, delving into the psychology of love and in particular her own sexuality.

She says her most famous film to date Who Am I? – a tragedy about a lesbian love affair – had propelled her to the front row of the Cambodian art world after it left a much greater impression on audiences than her other works combined. The film challenges contemporary Cambodian notions about homosexuality, which is traditionally frowned and looked-down upon in this country.

"I want to see discrimination against gays and lesbians stop. People are born this way and the public needs to be educated.” Bopha continues. “My film shows that this issue exists in Cambodian society and illustrates how these people love and live together. I want Cambodian people to be more open-minded and think about their children’s hearts.” Too often, she says, young Cambodians are bullied, cajoled or simply forced into a marriage with someone they do not love – by their own families.

Born in 1955 Bopha became a novelist at the age of 17 and found work as a journalist for Pro Chea Chun – or The People's Newspaper – as civil war engulfed Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge were gaining ground. Any hint of the fame she would find much later in life ended there.

Under the Khmer Rouge, Bopha hid her background, fearing that as an author she would be classified as an intellectual and killed. She was forced to farm in Svay Rieng province. Her husband and father did not survive.

In 1993, Bopha returned to journalism. Initially she wrote for a local newspaper then from 1997 to 2003 she was responsible for media campaigns conducted by the Women's Media Center (WMC) where she learned and developed her talent for making movies. From there it was a swift jump into Rock Productions which produces films for the Cambodian Television Network (CTN) while controlling a stable of local talent that dominate this country’s television and music industries. In 2007 she was awarded a Mekong Literature Prize.

Bopha wrote and produced Who Am I? She spent $20,000 of her own money and six months writing scripts and another three on filming, with much of her inspiration coming from the cosmetics industry where she found many of Cambodia’s gay and lesbians worked.

As in most Asian countries, Cambodian authorities are sensitive to the point of being thinned skin when it comes to interpretations of local culture and this had Bopha worried, given the time and expense she had dedicated to the project. For many Cambodians homosexuality is considered to be immoral.

She waited restlessly for a license from the Ministry of Fine Arts and then took on the responsibility of producing a film that fitted the approved script. The great difficulty then was finding actresses who could act like real lovers.

Some criticism followed – mainly from the wives of high-ranking officials. But more broadly Bopha was pleased with the response. This was new for Cambodia. "The feedback was very positive… people wanted to know how lesbians live and love each other, especially in sexual matters.”

The movie was a hit, proving popular among the Cambodian art scene and with overseas Cambodians. It recently screened on local television to a much more mainstream Khmer audience, and the lesser-developed countryside from where she expected the response might not be quite so endearing as in the capital. However, the results have been good, Bopha says.

Beyond this one film, her work has been prolific. Current titles written and directed by her for television and broadcast over the past two years include Suffered Heart, My Beloved, Parasite, Flower in Flower and My Love.

Bopha says she hopes to continue making films for Rock Productions over the immediate future despite limitations on the industry, which mainly relate to high costs, comparatively small audiences, piracy and competition from international films.

She plans to create a film with a familiar ring. Entitled Lady Tricks the film follows the life of a young woman who must work to support her family, and tolerate the good with the bad. However, if that is not possible, she has every intention of maintaining her well-honed art of telling stories.

“I am getting older now,” she said, adding it was impossible to produce films without money. “I may even re-start my first career as a novelist, after all I won’t have to spend a lot on that.”

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