How remiss of me. I forgot to mention that the Cambodian Space Project was the focus of a BBC 4 Storyville documentary earlier this month. Director Marc Eberle's Rocking Cambodia: Rise of a Pop Diva
was screened to millions in the UK. Here are Marc's answers to Storyville's QandA on the BBC website:
What made you first want to explore the subject?
One night in 2002, I was sitting outside Phnom Penh’s then most popular watering hole and nightclub, The Heart of Darkness. The street was deserted and a bright full Moon painted everything in diffuse grey. There were no streetlights and no tarmac and the red laterite dust suffocated all sound like snowflakes. From a distance, I could hear a small transistor radio playing an old song from the golden years of Cambodia’s past. “I’m only 16 years old and my life opens up like a flower…gimmie some love, gimmie some love…lalalalalala”… sang the “Golden Voice of Phnom Penh” Ros Sereysothea. It is the same song we have used at the beginning of the film in the pre-title. I didn’t know the song back then and a Cambodian friend at the table told me that the singer was still very famous in Cambodia and that she’d been killed under Pol Pot.
The sound of her voice was immediately cutting through to me. The aura it had was remarkable.
Then and there, I was hooked on the music.
The voice kept singing, it gave me the shivers and I felt like I was looking straight into the Heart of Darkness.
Having lived in Phnom Penh for some years I learned
more and more about the music and singers and was looking for an angle
to tell the story of Cambodia’s vibrant artistic past with a focus on
the era of the 1960s until the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
When I met Julien and Srey Thy in December 2009, and when they told me
they were starting a band together that would be riffing on Cambodian
rock evergreens from the 1960s it immediately clicked. As soon as I
heard that I suggested I would make a film about them. Luckily they
I wanted to make a film that tells of the resurrection of
arts and culture in a society that had undergone a complete cultural
collapse, and a film that tries to capture the funkiness of the people
and the culture that I thought was so prevalent in the whole place.
Adopting that approach was a challenge in itself. During the course of
filming far greater challenges would come my way.
How long did it take to get the film off the ground?
has taken 5 years to complete, I started filming in December 2009 – 3
weeks after I’d met Julien and Srey Thy, right from the get go when the
band started. When I began filming Srey Thy attempting to capture her
thoughts and personality it became clear that my role of
director/cameraman would go beyond simply following her in observational
mode. It became a balancing act of maintaining the formal
filmmaker-subject relationship while also supporting her in the massive
transition her life was taking as the front lady in a rock’n’roll band.
My main aide was Srey Roath, translator and sound-woman, who was also a
student of psychology. Roath understood very well the dilemma and
problems Srey Thy was facing trying to survive day by day seeking to
build a future for both her family of five and herself. Currently
approx. 40% of Cambodians live in abject poverty and are faced with the
same problems, but it is mostly women who have to bear the weight of it
and are sent out to bring home money–whichever way they can. Some people
say that this is due to Cambodian tradition and the Woman’s code of
conduct, which is handed down from mother to daughter and also taught in
schools. Yet, tradition also features the Man’s code of conduct, which
isn’t practiced anymore and frowned upon like a relic of the past.
early on in the shoot I talked with Srey Thy about what it meant for
her to participate in a film and tell her story to the world. Unlike
most women in her position she was neither shy nor scared to talk about
her past as sex worker. Quite to the contrary she said that she hoped
she could make a difference by telling other girls and young women out
there what happened to her so that they would know and hopefully make
better-informed choices than her.
I kept pitching the film project at
festivals and markets, there was interest from broadcasters, but no
contract and no budget, so I refreshed my skills as a bass player again
and joined the band for their tour through Australia – the only way for
me to pay for the shoot/trip.
What were you most surprised to learn in the course of production?
of the biggest challenges was researching the historical background.
Sadly as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to obliterate Culture the
availability of documents, films and songs from the period 1960-75 is
poor. Research and exploration for this film involved pioneering work
into the obscured fields of Cambodian rock’n’roll and Cambodia’s
cinematic legacy predating the Khmer Rouge-induced cultural collapse.
This work was both uplifting and tragic. During the making of this film I
unearthed musical recordings, precious scraps of Cambodian films
believed to be completely lost, and other previously unseen archival
Filmmaker friend Jim Gerrand opened up his garage and
went through reels of 16mm film that he filmed in Battambang in 1971 and
found previously unused footage of band rehearsals with singer Song
Seng Horn. We also found footage that demonstrated well how rock music
and modern dance was brought to the countryside by the King. In the
rushes of an old CBS TV show we found a reel of King Sihanouk visiting
the provinces with uniformed dancers twisting on stage and the King
clapping in the background. Priceless. We found rare documentary footage
from Phnom Penh in the late 1960s shot by a French cameraman
Jean-Pierre Janssen who was here filming for a feature film that he
never completed. We came a cross a KR propaganda film I’d never seen
anywhere that was originally produced for the international market with
Chinese help, but then never had been released.
Last but not
least, I came across the last few remaining photographs of Pen Ran, even
one of her singing in the studio, when Seng Dara, music lover
extraordinaire showed his archive to me.
A very important part of
the archival process was finding high quality recordings of songs as
they originally sounded. Most of Cambodia’s rock’n’roll song recordings
resurfaced in the 1990s – but with new overdubs that added a new,
contemporary punch to the music. Many of the tracks sold at markets and
available as downloads are these new and somewhat compromised versions.
Enter Hen Sophal, a painter in his sixties, who had hunted down and
amassed the biggest collection of songs, often by risking his own life
in a time during the early 1980s when Rock’n’Roll was still outlawed in
Cambodia. Himself a passionate connoisseur and in love with the music he
happily agreed to provide original recordings of the songs for the
The pinnacle of shooting the historic backstory was
finding out more about Pen Ran, Srey Thy’s idol (and inspiration), and
Cambodia’s most famous yet enigmatic female singer of the so-called
Golden Era. Everybody in Cambodia, whether young or old, knows her name
and her voice. But nobody knows any details about her life. Today, a
total of four photographs are all that remains and there is no moving
(film) footage of her. With the help of a group of students we visited a
village two hours south of Phnom Penh in order to find out what really
happened to Cambodia’s most celebrated and mysterious female singer.
What is more important, story or character?
always depends on the grammar of the film and how much the story is
plot driven or character driven. Each film has to find its own balance
between plot and characters.
The crux that editor Andrea Lang and
myself had to solve was, how much story and how much of the characters
do we need to develop in the shortest amount of screen time and be able
to pay it off at the end. Four years of rushes and roughly sixty years
of history of Cambodia is a lot of ground to cover, so clearly this film
is a plot driven story that requires many emotionally charged moments
of telling and showing of character- all told in the best visual way
Which documentary has most inspired you?
Little Dieter needs to fly (1997), Grizzly Man (2005), by Werner Herzog.
Hearts of Darkness – A filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola.
Person you’d most like to interview (living or dead?)
Hitler and Elvis.
Best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s only a film!
If money was no object, what is your dream documentary subject?
Life, the universe and everything.
Favourite film of all time?
Most difficult access?
Long Cheng, Laos-former CIA airbase.
Best recent read?
The Man with the Golden Mind.
You can read another article, by Marc himself on the BBC website @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1GB8bQ4x19MhhdZnqRFJ1bd/bringing-the-mythical-golden-hong-to-life
Labels: Marc Eberle, The Cambodian Space Project