At the beginning
Raiders of the lost temple
What happens when a big-budget Hollywood film rolls into one of the world's most isolated and strife-torn countries? James East reports on Tomb Raider's week-long shoot at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Guardian 8 December 2000.
Lara, in the shape of Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie, was looking exceptionally lithe in a jet-black catsuit; the result, apparently, of several months spent bungee jumping, motorbike riding and martial-arts training. Closer examination proved impossible, alas: bystanders who strayed too close to the set were scared off by cries of "Oi, you! Keep back!" from a pack of hulking British minders. A few hours later, a group of daytrippers visiting the Bayon temple asked what all the trucks and cameras were for. The temple guide explained that they were filming a "love story". Had they been allowed closer to the set, the tourists would have witnessed something rather different: a grim-faced Lara expertly power-sliding her Land Rover through a morass of mud and water for the cameras. For director Simon West, there was never any question about who should play the lead. "Angelina was always my only choice, not even my first choice," he said. "It really was a one-horse race. If she didn't do it, I can't think who else would have been suitable."
Tomb Raider is the first film to be shot in Cambodia since Peter O'Toole played Lord Jim in the shadow of Angkor Wat in 1964 (one reason why West wanted to film there). Since then, however, the country has had other things on its plate: bombed by the US during the Vietnam war, ravaged by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cadres in the 1970s, under occupation by Vietnamese troops in the 1980s and engulfed in civil war in the early 1990s, it has long been a no-go area for hardened backpackers, never mind unwieldy US film crews. Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), which described the background to the murder of some two million Cambodians by Pol Pot's regime, was filmed in neighbouring Thailand.
So the impact of Tomb Raider could be significant. If the film incarnation of Lara Croft is anything like as successful as her virtual counterpart, Cambodia can expect to enjoy something of a renaissance. Judging by the impact on tourism of the modestly successful Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Beach, which triggered a mini-invasion of Thailand's Phi Phi Leh island, Angkor could be swamped with tourists within a couple of years. For a time, though, it looked as if the Cambodian Tourist Board would have to postpone its recruitment drive, since the scenes to be filmed there nearly did not happen at all. Cambodia's film infrastructure is almost nonexistent, and much of the equipment had to be brought in from Thailand along a road that once ran through a Khmer Rouge stronghold. The road is littered with potholes and mines, and the transport crew - with the assistance of a minesweeper and the Royal Cambodian army - had to drive almost 30 trucks full of equipment along it. Inching its way towards Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples, the convoy often had to stop altogether while soldiers repaired the bridges ahead. "I can't wait until it is all over and they have gone home," said a frazzled transportation manager, gulping down a beer at the end of a particularly weary day on set. "Then I can get some sleep." He was, he said, being paid just $500 per week.
For most locals, however, used to the daily grind of negotiating washboard roads, the sum represents a king's ransom. Five hundred dollars equates to more than a year's wage for most Cambodians, who usually scrape by on one or two dollars a day. Susan D'Arcy, publicist with the Paramount film unit, said hundreds of Cambodians had been employed for Tomb Raider as extras or crew. Tens of thousands of much-needed dollars have been pumped into the local economy in hotel bills, mobile-phone rentals and wages. For translator Riem Sunsoley, who learned his English in a refugee camp on the Thai border, the film has been a huge boon, earning him $25 a day for five weeks. He is putting the money towards building an orphanage for the street kids who live around the temples. He is thankful to Hollywood, but says political peace is more important. "If politics does not go downhill then everything will develop. I hope more people from other countries will come to Cambodia," he said.
Just as valuable as the influx of cash, says Paramount, is the fact that Cambodians are witnessing first-hand how films are made. In the 1960s, Cambodia had a small but vibrant national film industry, largely thanks to the patronage of the country's movie-mad king, Norodom Sihanouk. Its chief output was formulaic, sickly-sweet love stories that were unashamedly cranked out for the masses. But Pol Pot single-handedly devastated the industry, killing most of the directors and actors who failed to flee the country in time. Since the ascension of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, the country's film industry has remained stagnant, stifled by the popularity of Hollywood and Hong Kong kick-and-chop movies. More importantly, Cambodia has no purpose-built cinemas. The old French colonial theatres have been converted into warehouses, shops or karaoke bars, and most movies are watched at home in the form of pirate videos. The fuss surrounding Ms Jolie and company, hopes the local artistic community, will revive interest in both film and film-making.
The film is also good news for the temples. The conservation authority responsible for preserving and protecting the complex is charging Paramount $10,000 per day for seven days. Much of the money will go back into caring for the temples themselves. Cambodia's conservationists have worked hard to avoid the outcry that followed the filming of a Mortal Kombat sequel in Thailand, where fight scenes were shot among the ruins of the Buddhist temples. Devout Buddhists were upset that violence had been allowed to disrupt what should have been a haven of peace. Conservationist Ashley Thompson, of Cambodia's Apsara temples authority, said the agency had worked extremely closely with Paramount to ensure that Cambodia's image was not sullied. "The film has made it past the censors here in Cambodia. What they told us is that there is violence, but that there are no guns and that Khmers [Cambodians] are not portrayed as violent people, but foreigners."
An extremely detailed contract was also drawn up to ensure that the temples would not be damaged in any way. However, the authorities decided against insisting on total control of what could be filmed. "Coming out of years of oppressive regimes, it seemed that censorship should not be something that we supported. Cambodia should be open, and violent films should be allowed, even if we don't like them," said Ms Thompson. Cambodia has found peace under strongman Hun Sen. But halfway through filming came an unwelcome reminder that the peace is all too fragile. On November 24, the capital, Phnom Penh, reverberated with the sound of gunfire when between 70 and 80 armed men laid siege to the city centre. Eight were killed and scores of suspects were rounded up. The alleged leader of what has been called an attempted coup was later arrested in Siem Reap - just a few hundred yards from where the Tomb Raider crew was staying. If the violence continues, salvaging Cambodia's tarnished image may be a task beyond even Lara Croft.
Labels: Lara Croft Tomb Raider