Sunday, February 03, 2013

CamboFest's 2009 Re-Discovery and Revival of a Vintage Cinema in Southeast Asia, 'The Royal' in Kampot, Cambodia

Just back from Kampot, Cambodia, location of the historic CAMBOFEST, Cambodia Film Festival (www.cambofest.com), 3rd edition, where CamboFest staffers re-discovered and revived the once popular vintage Cambodian cinema house, the ROYAL (established in 1955 or so)



As seen in previous coverage from that CamboFest event, the Royal had been unused since 1986, and had been completely forgotten by most, including all long time expatriates in the region. However, many older Cambodian Kampot residents remembered the old vintage cinema house very well.

In 2009, CamboFest staffers including coordinator Phun Sokunthearith (Mr. Tol) and founder/co-organizer Jason Rosette had stumbled upon the old venue while searching for reputed vintage cinema houses in the area.

Among those venues visited were two of the other original cinema halls in Kampot, the Makara ('January') and the Santhapeap ('Friendship'). However, the Royal did not stand out as a cinema house at first: it was being used as a water jug storage arehouse and only the latticed deco marqui hinted at its former role as a movie house.

Thus, Mr. Rosette and Mr. Tol sleuthed out the family who still lived in the former venue, and met with Mr. Chea Sokan and his wife, Mrs. Sim Mala.

Reviving the old cinema house had not been accomplished previously, and it had remained completely unused as a venue since 1989 when it was last shuttered.  Thus, there was some hesitation at first, as well as any lack of formal workflow regarding the approval process with the local Privincial governor's officer or the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art in Phnom Penh.

After many many meetings over the course of several months, the family agreed to allow the festival to take place in the 'Royal' if the proper permissions could be obtained from the Cambodian authorities.

A vigorous stretch of grass roots fundraising commenced. After many meetings with local authorities, some interesting and startling intrigue occurred within the local political sphere and foreigner-dominated art scene, which seemed to arise from a mixture of contemporary (foreigner-dominated) art world rivalry, mingled with the awakening of a long-latent antipathy coming from the former owners of the now-defunct Makara cinema house, which had been one of the original competitors of the Royal long ago.

With a significant amount of out of pocket expenses balanced by the generosity of worldwide contributors and a modest grant from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, the 3rd annual CamboFest Cambodia Film Festival succeeded for the very first time in bringing the vintage Cambodian cinema house, The Royale, back to life once again!

This brings us to the present: since the original 2009 grass-roots, bootstrapping revival of the vintage cinema house, 'The Royal' by CamboFest staffers Mr. Tol, Jason Rosette and others for the CamboFest, Cambodia Film Festival, several more film & cultural related efforts have taken place at the Royal, solidifying the venue's undisputed revival as a functioning cultural venue once again.

  
February 2013: Two recent Cambodian-based movie projects which have utilized
or which will soon utilize the Royal for production and exhibition; with Mr. Sokun, proprietor of the Royal
February 2013: Camerado SE Asia filmmaker (and CamboFest founder), Jason Rosette, with sunburn (L) and the Sokun family - owners of the old Royal cinema house which has found a new life since its revival at the CamboFest Cambodia Film Festival


March, 2016 Update: Kampot based arts organization, Epic Arts, chooses to use 'The Royal' as the venue for its dance performance, 'Come Back Brighter'. Although CamboFest had invited Epic Arts to participate in the original 2009 CamboFest event, Epic Arts had declined at the time, citing a 'clashing' event in Phnom Penh at the time (*see the Photo Phnom Penh event, below)


Ironically, seven years after the 2009 invitation to participate in the revival of the 'Royal' for the CamboFest event, Epic's use of the venue for their dance performance 'Come Back Brighter' was hailed by the Phnom Penh Post as a 'cultural coup'. 

It's notable in comparison that in 2009, the Phnom Penh Post's then-CEO Michel Dauguet had broken the Cambodian press law by refusing to correct a fake ad placed by malicious pranksters which was designed to derail the revival of 'The Royal' and the CamboFest festival event: it was a prank ad which announced the supposed 'cancellation' of the festival.
 
Mr. Dauguet's apparent intention was to utilize the Post as a vehicle to insulate the Phnom Penh based Photo Phnom Penh photography festival, organized by the Institut fran├žais, from a perceived threat from the CamboFest movie festival which was happening at the same time in Kampot. (*hence the 'clashing', to quote the words of one of the proprietors of Epic Arts). This perception of 'clashing' remained, despite the fact that our event was taking place in another city altogether (Kampot), and that the dates for the revival of the Royal had been established more than a year in advance, before any other events in Cambodia had set theirs. 

Additional motivations were undoubtedly amplified by long standing, assumed cultural mandates of the Institut fran├žais and related actors who share similar interests in Cambodia.

For instance, despite requests from the PAS / public affairs officer at the US Embassy, Phnom Penh, (at the time, this was PAO John Johnson; the US Embassy was a sponsor of CamboFest at the time) and CamboFest founder Jason Rosette, Mr. Dauguet failed to follow the Cambodian press law requiring an immediate correction when knowingly inaccurate printed content appears in a mass publication. 

After the CamboFest event had taken place - successfully, despite the obstacles, with visitors coming from neighboring ASEAN countries as well - we visited the Post's offices and found no correction in any of the newspaper's archived editions.  

Only when Mr. Rosette spoke directly with Mr. Dauguet after the event, did he state that he "thought it made more sense for the correction to be made on the same day of the week in which the 'error' had occurred" - that, is, a week after the prank ad had been printed, and after the conclusion of our event.".

Again, he stated he thought it 'made more sense' to wait a week, rather than to make the correction immediately... 

None of this was necessary; there was no tangible measure of interference between potential audiences. The criminal behavior of Mr. Dauguet  and his peers only threatened the bona-fide revival of a classic Cambodian cinema cultural venue, 'The Royal' which has since proven to be a welcome living cultural museum once again. 

As can be seen by the used by Epic Art's turnaround in perspective and subsequent decision to incorporate 'The Royal' into one of its 2016 performances, it's clear that the 'Royal' has truly come back to life as a vintage cinema hall and cultural venue. 

The hard fought efforts of the original CamboFest staffers back in 2009 - Mr. Tol, Suong Sambath, Jason Rosette, and others - and the enabling worldwide contributors and sponsors at the US Embassy, Phnom Penh, have conclusively shown that a focused grass roots effort can make a difference.

Our budget in 2009 was minimal; co-organizer and founder Jason Rosette was working only part time as a teacher in Phnom Penh, while devoting his free time to the event's production. Much of the production costs came out of pocket, even with the contributions and donations of worldwide supporters and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Even so, the 2009 revival of the vintage Southeast Asian Cambodian cinema hall, 'The Royal' was successfully accomplished - bringing back to life a formerly lost corner of the Cambodian cultural landscape for others to use to this day, while continuing to provide an income to Mr. Chea Sokan and his wife, Mrs. Sim Mala.

*** NOTE: A comprehensive, detailed eBook, with photos, about the process of reviving the vintage Southeast Asian cinema, 'The Royal', in Kampot Cambodia is forthcoming! - Contact camerado@camerado.com with inquiries ***

All the Best,

Jason Rosette / Camerado Media
Co-organizer and founder of the CamboFest Film Festival

IN OTHER NEWS: One of Kampot's three last remaining vintage cinema houses, the Makara 7 (7th of January), has been partly town down to allow the construction of a new hospital. Only the front facade of this striking new-deco structure remains...


Balancing the loss of the iconic Makara 7, at least the Royal has now found a new place on the cultural scene...