Cannes Winner Rithy Panh Launches Heritage Film Festival in Cambodia

Rithy Panh - P 2013
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The Un Certain Regard awardee has teamed up with preservationists Technicolor Foundation to preside over an eight-day event starting Saturday.

HONG KONG – Films by Walt Disney, Rene Clair, Satyajit Ray and the late Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk will be among those screened at what is billed as Asia’s first cinema-heritage festival in Phnom Penh.

The inaugural edition of Memory! was launched in a press conference Wednesday morning at the Bophana Center, the film and audiovisual resource institute founded by Rithy Panh, the Franco-Cambodian director whose latest movie, The Missing Picture, was awarded the top prize last week in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar.

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Organized by Bophana and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, a French organization established in 2006 to preserve, restore and promote films around the world, the festival will screen 40 films from June 1-9, as well as host a series of seminars and workshops for industry professionals, scholars and local students.

Most of the films will be shown on 35mm prints – which in itself is a daunting task in Cambodia, where equipment catering for the format “is all gone,” said Severine Wemaere, managing director of the Technicolor Foundation and, alongside her colleague Gilles Duval, one of the festival’s three general delegates alongside Panh.

Projection equipment was shipped to Cambodia from France and was installed at Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater, the festival’s main venue alongside the Bophana Center, said Wemaere.

The program comprises a widely varied slate of films, ranging from well-known English-language classics such as Fantasia, The Red Shoes, Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story, to recently restored movies such as Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holidays and shorts by the Lumiere brothers (The Serpentine Dance, 1896), George Melies (A Trip to the Moon) and Rene Clair (Entr’acte, 1924).

More importantly, the festival will also feature gems from around Asia, including Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home (1951), Usmar Ismail’s After the Curfew and Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), as well as less-acknowledged films from Southeast Asian directors like Pham Ky Nam (Ms Tu Hau, 1963) and Cambodian veteran Ly Bun Tim (Sobasith, 1965).

Of even more interest will be two films directed by the late Cambodian monarch Sihanouk. Rather than merely bombastic epics, both Apsara (1965) and The Joy of Living (1969) depict prince, princesses and generals as flawed individuals, indulging in material excess or in illicit love affairs.

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Supported by the Cambodian government and the country’s national film commission, all screenings are free so as to raise the local public’s awareness of the historical value of the medium, which the Khmer Rouge nearly wiped away during its rule from 1975-79.

And what Pol Pot’s men didn’t finish, the tropical climate did – with Cambodia boasting of no state-of-the-art film preservation facilities, and prints of Cambodian films giving way to the elements. While copies of Sihanouk’s films were stored at film archives in France – the country’s former colonial rulers – works like Ly Bun Tim’s Sobasith, for example, were kept in unsatisfactory conditions, said Wemaere

But Wemeare also emphasized how Memory! is more than just a platform for showcasing Cambodian film heritage, with the event described in its publicity material as an “international film heritage festival” and the first of its kind in Asia.

The festival has invited archivists and film professionals from around the world to attend the event and its conferences, Wemeare said, with delegates ranging from Douglas Laible, managing director of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, and L’Immagine Ritrovata head Davide Pozzi to representatives from film archives and organizations in Europe and Asia (among them officials from established filmmaking powers like China and Japan, to countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Mongolia).

“They all have films for each other, and we all have the same constraints,” said Wemaere. “There’s the heat, the blocked copyrights or films disappearing because of different historical reasons.”

And Memory! is taking place just as Cambodian cinema is getting more attention in the film festival circuit, what with Panh’s latest win at Cannes and also the critical success of The Golden Slumber, a documentary about the struggle of the country’s filmmakers as they weather political turmoil and then critical-mass neglect of their work.

The film was made by the young Paris-based Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou, who is working as a coordinator for the festival this time around and has written a very extensive essay about Cambodian cinema in the festival’s very substantial and illustrative catalog. Chou’s participation bodes well as a precursor of interest from a younger generation of filmmakers and filmgoers, Wemeare said. “It’s a good thing that he’s willing to share that,” she said – and it’s what she hopes Memory! could achieve when the festival kicks off Saturday.