Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marc and his Space Project

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 agreed!
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?
It 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.
Very 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?
One 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 material.
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 soundtrack.
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?

It 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 possible.

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.
Favourite Website/blog?
Re Cambodia
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?
Apocalypse Now!
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 @

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Sarah's in town

With Sarah in the foyer of the Patio Hotel
Dinner at Deco tonight with the lovely Sarah O'Brien, after she arrived in Phnom Penh on a brief whistle-stop visit. Sarah was telling me of her first-ever trip to Cambodia back in 1997 that inspired her to pen the Winds of Angkor musical. She's been back a few times since including when she brought a WOA musical highlights package to the Chaktomuk Theatre stage in 2010, as well as a performance at the Angkor temples. When Sarah is not engrossed in musicals and making documentaries, she's a cellist of some repute, touring often with international artist Yanni or supporting singers of the ilk of Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli. And a really great friend as well. She's a Nottingham lass but now lives in Los Angeles.

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When Clouds Fell out in April

Phnom Penh-based author Robert Carmichael talks about his new book, When Clouds Fell From the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal, which is due out in April. "My book weaves the stories of five people whose lives intersected to catastrophic effect in the maelstrom of 1970s Cambodia, and explains how the consequences of that collision remain relevant today. In 1977 a young Cambodian diplomat called Ouk Ket was recalled to Phnom Penh from his post in Senegal. He was under the impression that he would take part in the rebuilding of his country, but on his return he was taken to the Khmer Rouge’s secret prison, known as S-21, where he was held for six months, tortured and finally executed. In a country as rigidly Communist as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Ket - a royalist - was a class enemy. Left behind in France were his wife, Martine, whom Ket had met while studying in Paris, and their two children. Their daughter, Neary, was just two when Ket left and the family never heard from him again. It was years before they knew what had happened to Ket and it took even longer to come to terms with his fate.
Ket had grown up in Phnom Penh and was close to his cousin Sam Sady. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in April 1975, Sady, her family and Ket’s family were among the 2.5 million people forcibly evacuated into brutal agricultural cooperatives. Sady’s story recounts how Pol Pot’s 1975-79 rule affected ordinary Cambodians when around 2 million people, or one in four of the population, died. The person linking them is Comrade Duch, the former head of S-21, where at least 15,000 so-called enemies of the revolution were tortured and executed. Fewer than a dozen inmates survived. In 2009 Duch was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, found guilty and sentenced to 35 years. He appealed, and in 2012 was jailed for life. The paths of these five people crossed in the 1970s and again in 2009 when Neary and Martine testified as civil parties at Duch’s trial to tell the UN-backed court how Ket’s disappearance and murder had shattered their lives. The book will be published in April 2015, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge."
You can read an interview with the author in The Diplomat @ The book website is @

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Off to London

The Last Reel's Ma Rynet in a still from the movie
Onto movie business...The Last Reel is off to London next week for a showing at the Asia House Film Festival in the big smoke on Saturday 28 March at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch. The screening is already a sell-out. Next up will be the Asean Film Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia on 9-11 April, whilst director Kulikar Sotho will then head Stateside to Los Angeles, for two screenings on 25 and 27 April in downtown LA, at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Italy will be the next port of call a few days later and all points global after that. A pretty good review in the Easternkicks website will help too @ For local fans of the film, we are beavering away on a plan to screen the film far and wide in Cambodia later in the year.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Savy's a painted jezebel

A new, acoustic stripped-down sound for Savy's latest release, Painted Jezebel, after her previous poptastic releases such as Zero G. You can listen to it on SoundCloud @ I look forward to the day that Savy brings her gorgeous rich tones to these shores.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Documentary on Haing Ngor

Haing S Ngor's signature
Yesterday saw the world premiere of Arthur Dong's 87-minute film: The Killing Fields of Dr Haing S Ngor, at the CAAMFest in San Francisco. Dr. Haing S Ngor, the only Asian to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, was recruited out of the blue by a casting agent at a wedding to play the heartrending role of Cambodian photographer Dith Pran in Roland Joffé’s 1984 film The Killing Fields. Ngor drew on his own experiences as a four-year survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s labor camps, where he endured gruesome torture and hard labor while his family, including his wife and unborn son, died around him. Though he continued acting, Ngor retrained the spotlight on Cambodia, traveling worldwide to speak out against Pol Pot’s regime and the Vietnamese occupation of his country that followed. He became such a powerful voice that specters of conspiracy still haunt his untimely 1996 death. Veteran doc-maker Arthur Dong unspools Ngor’s phenomenal life with original animation, rare archival material and newly shot footage inspired by his autobiography Survival in the Killing Fields. Here is the actor's signature over a picture of him with his Oscar.


Thursday, March 12, 2015


The dancers, from a distance
Enjoyed the Lives of Giants at Chaktomuk Theatre tonight, put on by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble group from Takhmao, which gives an interesting new twist to classical story-telling, trying to make it more relevant and easier-to-grasp and getting the dancers to express themselves more, both in movement and speech. The Angels and their whooping and crying brought a welcome touch of humour to the show, making it less stuffy and more accessible, whilst retaining the classical elements that make it very Cambodian. Its on for another 3 days and well worth getting along to watch it for yourself. An all-female cast accompanied by an orchestra and singers.

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On World Cup duty

Va Sokthorn (blue, 6) in action vs Macau: Photo by Masayori Ishikawa
Cambodia battered Macau in the World Cup 1st round qualifier at home today, 3-0 and if they don't get whooped next Tuesday, will be into Round 2 where the big boys like Japan, Korea, etc come into the fray. There's little likelihood of Cambodia getting beyond the group stages of Round 2, but the victory in front of an 8,000 sell-out crowd at the Army Stadium will put the fans in a good mood at last, after years of pretty crappy results, and they certainly look to have the measure of Macau, beyond any unexpected disasters. A repeat of the desperate defeat to Laos in the previous World Cup qualifiers in 2011 will be at the back of everyone's mind next Tuesday. Making his World Cup debut for Cambodia was Phnom Penh Crown's recent recruit from French football, Va Sokthorn, who has Khmer parents. He has yet to play a league match for his club side but has already represented his country, which is quite a feat.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Magical times

Pete King, who managed Steel Pulse at the time of their debut album release Handsworth Revolution in 1978, gives the low down on that time and his involvement in this recorded interview. Magical times.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Weary legs

The PPCFC staff team. I'm third from left, back row.
A rare photo of me playing football, the first time in 3 years, as the Phnom Penh Crown staff team took on ISF in Tuol Kork recently. We drew 12-12 with the final kick of the game. Miraculously, I came out of the game unscathed. I am the oldest player by a hefty margin and I might find it impossible to get out of bed as a result. 4 of the line-up have played international football for Cambodia. Obviously, not me.

The next chortle-filled night of the Cambodia Comedy club has been set for Friday March 20 at Equinox, start 8pm, tickets at $5 a pop. On the mike will be the comedy trio of Aidan Killian, Graham Wooding and Ray Bradshaw, not all at the same time of course.

Traditional dance enthusiasts out there - "The Lives of Giants" will be performed by Sophiline Arts Ensemble at Chaktomuk Theatre, Phnom Penh from 12 -15 March from 7pm (4pm on final day). Tickets priced at $3, 5, 20 & 15. This is Cambodia's only professional dance troupe and they are very talented. I'm fortunate enough to be invited on the opening night, so I will be one of the lucky ones - make sure you get to see this very special performance too.

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