Cambodia: Cut off by Khmer Rouge, film scene revives at refugees return

In Cambodia, filmmakers are slowly returning after decades as refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge.

James Grant
Guests attend ‘Golden Reawakening,’ an exhibition about the golden era of Cambodian filmmaking in the 1960s and ’70s.

• A local, slice-of-life story from Monitor correspondents.

Just before the communist Khmer Rouge marched into the capital in 1975, Tea Lim Koun, the director of the classic Cambodian film “The Snake Man” (1972), escaped bloodshed by fleeing to Canada. Over the next four years, the genocidal regime executed most of Phnom Penh’s remaining directors and actors, wiping out Cambodia’s vibrant filmmaking scene. 

Traumatized, Mr. Koun vowed never to make a film again. But he was overwhelmed when he learned that Davy Chou, the French Cambodian grandson of a famous director who disappeared in late 1969, had returned to Cambodia last summer to start an annual film festival. “The younger filmmakers will give hope to Cambodian society again,” Koun says.

He sent his daughter to represent him and his films at the exhibition called “Golden Reawakening.” 

As the post-Khmer Rouge generation of Cambodians grows up, they’re producing a flurry of films that mimic the vintage style of the 1960s – widely considered the country’s golden era. Much of the revival is owed to educated filmmaker refugees who are repatriating to Cambodia from France and the United States and opening the country’s first film institutes at local universities. 

Mr. Chou, the grandson of Van Chann and a film professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, is at the forefront of the movement with his new film, “Twin Diamonds,” released in October. “People thought this would never happen, that Cambodians wouldn’t be able to come together and revive the arts,” he says. “Young people here are doing amazing things.” 

“Twin Diamonds” was screened at the festival among scores of Cambodian films, most of which explored themes of family dynamics and infidelity.

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