THE CAMBOFEST STORY
...regarding the unusual and mysterious events surrounding
the 3rd Edition of CAMBOFEST, Cambodia Film Festival - www.cambofest.com
"His Majesty the King-Father asked me to thank you on His behalf. He read with great interest your report about your activities in reviving the cinema industry in Cambodia." - From the cabinet of H.M. The King-Father Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia
"I found the write-up, below, absolutely mesmerizing"
- Mr. Balen, Indochine Law (KL/Bangkok/Phnom Penh)
This year's festival met or exceeded most achievement goals set from the previous editions: the all-digital throughput was the first of its kind for a festival environment in the region, and the festival attracted more international guests than previous years.
One additional met goal which was not originally anticipated, was the discovery and revival of the pre-Khmer rouge cinema house in Kampot, the ‘Royal’, on Cambodia’s South Coast, which had lain unused since 1988. This revival required the installation of a custom-made screen and power system, as both components were absent in the cinema house itself. Ambient light issues, from the mostly-destroyed roof, necessitated the use of a large venue projection system.
The interference at the 2009 edition took many forms:
1) Hoax classified ads placed on online bulletin boards and forums with CamboFest staff phone #’s listed, presumably in an attempt to harass or tie up phone lines.
2) Hoax classified ads printed in one of the local daily newspapers, announcing the fake 'cancellation' of the event
3) Phony press releases sent to publications in Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan announcing the fake 'cancellation' of this year’s CamboFest, a Cambodian government-approved project – and currently, still Cambodia’s only currently functioning international film event* (*as of this original writing...since that time the Cambodia International Film Festival has also come onto the scene)
4) Physical Confrontations against CamboFest staff
CamboFest 2007 venue manager Barry Vis, visiting from Amsterdam in mid January 2009, upon hearing the incredible tales of intrigue which surrounded the 2009 festival, was at first in utter disbelief.
Only when actual copies of emails and text messages were produced could the whole campaign of attempted sabotage be comprehended.
Who was behind all this? Several parties, all foreigner expatriates, guests in the Kingdom working in coordination to disrupt a Cambodian government approved cultural event. (something the Cambodian government wasn't happy about).
Thanks to the assistance of the Microsoft account investigation department which traced a bogus hotmail account, two IT specialists, and a private investigator, the identities of several of those responsible have been 100% verified.
not to destroy it”.
(Barry Vis, CamboFest 2007 Venue Manager)
At the urging of movie fans in Cambodia and abroad who want to understand the behind-the-scenes dimensions of producing an independent movie festival in the current Cambodian context, elements of the “CamboFest Story” are herewith presented.
This timeline may be seen as a testament to the challenges involved in working to revive the flagging motion picture industry in one developing county, challenges that were offset at the 3rd edition by distinct signs of progress – the rediscovery and revival of a defunct vintage Cambodian cinema, for instance.
As might be seen in the following reconstruction of events, the most notable (and unexpected) challenges in producing the Cambodian government-approved 2009 event stemmed not from corruption in the Cambodian government, or lack of motion picture industry infrastructure, but from concerted, coordinated attempts at undermining the event, carried out by foreigners living in Cambodia.
These incidents, while obviously not helpful, did not derail or stop the 3rd edition of CamboFest.
To the contrary, the incidents are noted and “held aloft” – like shrunken, trophy heads - as enduring mementos from Cambodia’s international independent movie festival, CamboFest.
(CamboFest 2007 Venue Manager Barry Vis)
Mr. Phun Sokunthearith (aka, Mr. Tol)
Mr. Narith Hoo
All our volunteers...and the rest of The CamboFest Team
Feature Documentary - ‘Agent Orange: 30 Years Later’ Dir., John Trinh
Feature Fiction - ‘Sky in December’ Dir., Hiroshi Toda
Short Documentary - ‘Schritt fur Schritt’ Dir., Vojtech Pokorny
Short Fiction - ‘Surprise!’ Dir., Fabrice Maruca
Local Cambodian Showcase - ‘Shadow of Darkness’ Dir., Yvon Hem
Universal Language - ‘Mime vs. Junkie’ Dir., Olesia Shewchuk
Social Issue Movie - ‘Meltdown in Tibet’ Dir., Michael Buckley
Very Short Movie - ‘LoopLoop’ Dir., Patrick Bergeron
Animation (Int’l) - ‘INK’ Dir., Justine Wallace
Animation (Local) - ‘Mosquito in Dreaming’ Dir., Phanith Norm
It’s the leadup to CamboFest 2009. A lot of prep work is still at hand as we wrangle venues, locate and build gear, train staff, and do other preparations.
Although we had set our dates over a year ago, and had originally intended to hold the festival in Phnom Penh, we’ve changed locations due to the unexpected discovery of a vintage cinema house in Kampot that would provide some great magic for our 3rd edition.
The new location: the 'Royal', a popular local landmark in its heydey in the 1960’s, which sputtered to a halt during the Lon Nol regime, and then fell into the into the abyss during the Pol Pot era.
** Our goal this year: to bring the old cinema house back to life **
Few local foreigners know about the ‘Royal’: we only just stumbled upon it accidentally while scoping out other vintage cinema houses in the area.
No other foreigner I’d talked to knew of the existence of the ‘Royal’, at least none that I had talked with in Phnom Penh or Kampot - not even long time expats. (Of course, local Cambodians in Kampot knew it well…)
Most Barangs, even including some longtime Kampot residents, assume our intended venue to be the larger, more decrepit (on the inside) vintage cinema house, the 'Makara', on Kampot’s main street. (Even the Phnom Penh Post publishes a photo of the 'Makara' in one of their issues, believing it to be the 'Royal').
I’m now busy running around the ricefields and outskirts of Kampot, sometimes with my trusty staffers Narith Hoo or Phun Sokuntearith (aka ‘Mr. Tol’), sometimes on my own. I find myself haggling and dealing with pleasant but corrupt local Sangkat officials, speaking in Khmer as best I can, while handing out a little under-the-table payola as needed.
After living in Cambodia for nearly 5 years, I can speak fairly well, but not fluently, so it’s still a bit of a challenge for me to deal with these guys when I need to on my own –
But I have no choice: the show must go on. I’ve got a commitment to the participating filmmakers and my Cambodian colleagues and staff, and a strong desire to help develop the movie industry in my adopted home country - or, the country that 'adopted' me.
It’s tough, puzzling work though. No one knows anything, not even folks in the local government. We hire one local motodop to take us to the Sangkat office, but he soon gets lost, vanishing down a dusty trail.
We still can’t find a couple of the crucial Sangkat offices. One of them is vaguely said to be somewhere out on the edge of town beyond one of the ricefields, but that’s all we have to go on.
We call the inscrutable Kampot Culture Department to get directions; they inform us they don’t actually know where it is - but that we should “go left”.
CamboFest staffer Narith Hoo (who will later helm our custom made CamboFest loudspeaker-moto promotional efforts during the festival) and I set out to find it. After many dead ends, we arrive at last at a small wooden house with a Cambodian flag on the far side of a local ricefield: the missing Sangkat office!
It’s closed til 2 or 2:30, so we rest a bit. We’re tired but satisfied that we almost have the final stamp we need.
The rice looks great – it’s luscious, green, and cool. The whole field rustles and waves to us.
NOVEMBER 27, 2009
The first of a series of coordinated efforts to harass the festival appear about a week before the actual event. Hoax classified ads are placed by prankster third parties on the local BongThom.com wesite, a Cambodia-based online forum and bulletin board where users can advertise items for sale, make job and events announcements, and conduct and pursue other services.
It's a handy website, and I've used it plenty of times myself to promote CamboFest locally.
Callers ring and send me text messages asking about iPods, cars, and other 'Phantom items' I have for sale. Inquiries much later with helpful Krawma general manager Ken White, owner of the BT website, indicate that – with the sheer number of new ads normally coming in and bumping out the old – a new ad would only stay “fresh” a number of hours.
Therefore, some dedicated misanthrope(s) were actually sitting there, nothing better to do than to post a continuous stream of fake ads to try to harass CamboFest.
8:17 AM - Someone from phone #85515832XXX text messages to inquire:
“Hi sir, I saw ur advertising for sell iPhon,
Others call inquiring about other phantom items “for sale”, with my own phone numbers listed as the contact – the intention apparently being to tie up and harass our phone lines.
I call BongThom.com and kindly ask them to remove any ads with my number listed…the Cambodian staff say they will try to handle.
On the plus side: some positive coverage of CamboFest appears in the Phnom Penh Post “7Days” lifestyle section that day as well. The article is entitled Kampot rolls out the red carpet, by freelance reporter Dianne Janes. (It will be the only story coverage of CamboFest to appear in any of the local newspapers from that point on.)
The article is truncated somewhat from my original responses to Dianne’s email interview questions. My responses regarding the actual, factually true dysfunctional state of the movie industry in Cambodia (with which later BBC coverage concurs) do not appear in the final interview.
This is not surprising; the overall trend to date by most (foreign) journalists, lifestyle writers, and “what’s happening in Cambodia” websites and guidebooks is to maintain a notion that that the movie industry in Cambodia is robust, is alive and well, is “making a comeback”.
The fact is: the film industry in Cambodia is currently not viable for a variety of structural reasons. This is not just my position, it’s also the position of numerous Cambodian producers I’ve spoken with as well – legendary Cambodian filmmaker Yvon Hem states as much in a recent interview.
Piracy, against which CamboFest has taken an activist stand, to the point that the fest and its founder have taken a lot of heat in the expatriate art & film scene in Cambodia where unlicensed screenings are the norm* (* three of the most popular Western oriented movie venues in Cambodia operate well promoted, overt pirate screenings) is the number one killer of the movie industry here.
One of the main goals of CamboFest is to attempt to introduce some normalcy to the Cambodian industry here by producing an “actual movie festival”, an event which gains the permission of all participating filmmakers, producers, or authorized copyright reps, i.e., distributors.
This is standard in the international film festival world, but is actually considered to be an oddity in Cambodia and in the expatriate enclaves there. As mentioned, some of the most popular expatriate-oriented venues in Cambodia
Basically, few folks bother gaining the rights to screen movies, or to even simply ask the filmmaker/producer, who would often agree to a reduced rate or pro-bono screening in Cambodia, understanding that the territory is probably not able to pay full price for film rentals.
Why don't they secure permissions? Because it's a hassle: it's easier to screen it without asking or securing permissions.
Anyone who is activist or speaks out against it takes heat as a result, or worse, their project (in this case, 'festival') gets attacked.
Lest folks in Cambodia complain about not otherwise being able to watch movies on the big screen, why not use the following approach: gather some friends, set up as big a screen as you want, and screen a movie – that’s fine, it’s considered “home use”.
An understanding of the mechanics of a properly functioning motion picture industry is generally lacking in Cambodia: some educational interventions could be useful to raise awareness in this area.
Basically, the product (the movie) costs money to produce and therefore must recoup its expenses via exhibition or sales of units, ie, DVDs or VCDs. If the product is being copied or otherwise sold (i.e., through bogus exhibition or institutionalized replication of a DVD or VCD), then the producers can’t recoup their costs – and they won’t produce more product.
As a corollary, when piracy is as rampant as it is in Cambodia – whether through replication and sale of DVDs/VCDs, illegal broadcasts, or through bogus overt commerical IP-abuse (better known as "piracy") by foreign-run exhibition venues, the motion picture industry centers outside of Cambodia look towards this minor territory, weigh the apparently significant risks of operating here versus the potential (modest) revenues, and hesitate to invest or even to allow normal licensing of their first-run titles.
And so the cycle continues…
Many guests in Cambodia observe the increasing number of venues and screens and “movie events”, especially in Phnom Penh, and proceed to equate that perception with the establishment of a bonafide cinema "industry” - not knowing (or bothering to know) that the great bulk of exhibition here is bogus, and so that the existence of a real movie industry is a mirage.
Ironically, various government agencies, cultural institutions, and foundations, in seeking venues to conduct their programs in Phnom Penh, will look the other way even when their venue of choice is commonly involved in bogus exhibition: it's a matter of geopolitical expediency.
Journalists, who might otherwise serve a useful purpose of investigating and highlighting the issue, tend to whitewash or ignore it (for whatever reasons).
But my own experiences in producing CamboFest over the past three years have led me to conclude that standard industry models, when applied in the Cambodian context, may not prove to be workable here for a number of years to come.
Anyway, back to the story: while I’m in Kampot, hustling to get all the permissions for the festival, Post Reporter Dianne Janes requests a screener for one of the movies selected to play on Day 3. (“In Transit” by Leigh Rodgers).
I tell Diane that I’m not in Phnom Penh now, that had to head back to Kampot to deal with the permissions again unexpectedly, but I’ll get her something to look at when I get back to Phnom Penh.
Soon after, I get a text about one of the BongThom.com ads. Someone’s asking if “my car is still for sale”.
I respond that there is no car – somebody’s placing the ad as a joke or prank.
I ask who it is. The reply: “It’s “DJ Devi Vanhon from Love FM”, (a local Phnom Penh English language radio station) and she adds:
“Have a safe trip home”.
I thought that was a bit strange. The only person I’d spoken with – the only person who knew I was in Kampot - was Phnom Penh Post freelance reporter Dianne Janes.
I reply to the DJ:
“I am home” - (I feel at home in Kampot as much as I do in Phnom Penh)
A few more calls come in about different items for sale, but it’s nothing more than a minor hassle at this point.
I even begin texting callers back:
“We will be displaying all the items for sale at CAMBOFEST, December 4-6 see www.cambofest.com for info!”
NOVEMBER 27, 2009, Cont.
That same day, in the ‘7 Days” section, the first of two hoax classified ads appears in the Phnom Penh Post. This first ad is relatively harmless: a fake ad for a Honda Dream (motorcycle), with a too-good-to-be-true offer of $550 and an apparently urgent need to sell.
As with the BongThom.com ads, my phone number* is listed as a contact, in an apparent attempt to tie up our phone lines. (*I find out later that both of my only two phone numbers are listed – so there’s no chance that it’s a random typo).
At this point it seems like someone with too much time on their hands are undertaking some kind of prank routine - not sure why at this point, because so far the hoaxes are just minor irritations, with no real "message", apparent purpose, or effect on operations.
I send an email inquiry to the Post’s business manager, Stephane Davos:
Fri, Nov 27, 2009 at 1:53 PM
Someones apparently placed an ad in the Post's 7 days section with my phone # listed (011 736 206); though not terribly troubling, it's either a typo or a prank, because I placed no such ad
Can you pls look into this? It's a bit distracting, though I'm flattered folks think I have the means to possess so many items for sale...
I think the ad is for a Honda Dream - not sure maybe some other items.
Can you pls also tell me who placed this ad, I'd like to drop them a line to discuss ;)
Thanks, Jason Rosette # 011 736 206
Fri, Nov 27, 2009 at 2:09 PM Reply | Reply to all | Forward | Print | Delete | Show original
Hi Jason, Sorry for the mishap. It will probably be a typo. I don't see how this person would sell his stuff otherwise. I'll have someone look into it.
Thanks for your understanding.
Business Development Manager
I also send an SMS to the editor of the Post, Seth Meixner, asking him what’s up with the ad.
At 1:53PM he texts back:
Idea: when we get back to Phnom Penh, we’ll buy some walkie talkies. We'll use the radios to bypass any problems from the stream of phone calls coming in due to the hoax ads.
NOVEMBER 29, 2009
SMS text message from Seth Meixner, Phnom Penh Post re: the first hoax classified that had been placed
“I’m chking w/ the ad people tomorrow”
NOVEMBER 30, 2009
SMS from Seth Meixner, Phnom Penh Post:
“I’ve chked about the ad and was told it was removed.”
Back in Phnom Penh, and too busy making final preparations for the festival to inquire further into what had been going on at BongThom.com or the Post.
We've go all our permissions now from the Kampot authorities...all the running around has finally paid off:
|An announcement falsely claiming the CamboFest Film festival had been cancelled; the ad was placed by disgruntled foreign movie pirates who disagreed with CamboFest's pro-copyright stance. Many youth working with the festival were deeply upset when they saw the ad, until its phony nature was explained and clarified. Despite requests from the US Embassy public affairs officer sponsoring the event, and festival organizer Jason Rosette, the ad was left uncorrected by the Phnom Penh Post's CEO Michel Dauget in violation of Cambodian press law.|
DECEMBER 1, 2009
Despite earlier outreach to the Post's Stephane Davos regarding the first hoax classified that appeared in their classified section, a new, second hoax ad headed “CamboFest cancelled” appears.
This ad is more problematic than the first ad for the 'phantom' Honda Dream, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to argue that the appearance of this ad in “Cambodia’s newspaper of Record” can be beneficial, even if its negative impacts are debatable.
Even though the ad is placed in the events classified section, a significant number readers in Phnom Penh (as I’d find out later) take it to be the truth, or are at least confused by its appearance.
Fortunately, a large audience demographic in Kampot, Kep, and the South Coast doesn’t read the Post. They are travelers and tourists, generally not following the daily news in Cambodia, and are also fundamentally not involved in any of the rivalries or hostilities that may be found in the expat community in Cambodia.
The hoax ads are both written by, and presumably placed by, a long-term foreigner (expat), definitely not a native Cambodian.
I wondered which was more disturbing: that someone had actually found personal value in devoting the time and effort to write and place the ads in the first place; or that the ads had made it through the Post’s editorial gauntlet, assuming that such a gauntlet existed.
While there is the argument that a newspaper can’t be expected to effectively vet or screen every single classified ad, we weren’t talking about an innocuous typographical error in this instance - i.e., an 8 gig iPod that should have been listed as a 16Gig iPod.
The ad is referring to Cambodia’s only (at the time, at least) functioning international movie festival, already in its 3rd year. As of December 1st, 2009, there were at least ten newspapers in Cambodia, and many more magazines - but only one international film festival.
Sure, we’re underfunded and grass-roots (and still not able to actually afford a red carpet so far) but we’re well known domestically and internationally, and have hosted the work of over two hundred filmmakers. And now we're striving to undertake a historical and symbolic event in Cambodian cinema by reviving the defunct Kampot cinema house, the ‘Royal’, even if we sustain a financial loss (which is likely).
I wondered if the Post or the hoaxster(s) were aware of the impact the ad may have on the livelihoods of our Cambodian colleagues who were helping to produce the festival…I thought back again to all the recent press about the state of the cinema industry in Cambodia, with many foreigners and journalists bemoaning its decline, and yearning for its return.
Yet, here were foreigners – living in Cambodia, as guests of the Cambodian government – making concerted attempts to thwart one of the few valid efforts to bring a viable motion picture industry back to Cambodia.
All the rhetoric had gone out the window...
Would the Post have permitted the printing of a hoax classified ad announcing the ‘cancellation’ of the local, French-run PhotoPhnomPenh
Anyway, I heard about the fake ad from a colleague. I contacted the Post’s editor, Seth Meixner to see what was up with this new, second hoax ad to be printed in just a few days. Seth said they’d make a correction. I assumed, as per normal journalistic standards and all reasonable expectation that the correction would be made the next day.
I contacted the public affairs officer at the US Embassy, the embassy being one of several supporters of CamboFest 2009 (as well as the 2008 edition) and mentioned the situation to him. He agreed the ad should be corrected as soon as possible, and said he'd also talk to Seth in person later that day.
While I wasn’t thrilled with the ad being placed in the first place, I was satisfied in knowing that adequate damage control would occur as a result of a quick correction. I'd considered actually buying a small ad in the Post to make the correction myself (since a pro-bono ad wasn't forthcoming, which would have been appreciated). But our budget was already strained...we still had to pay for rooms in Kampot for all the visiting filmmakers, for example.
I decided to rely on the Post making a prompt correction*, and went back to focusing on the task at hand: the development of the movie industry in Cambodia, via CamboFest edition 3.0.
(*As we'd find out later...this didn't quite happen as planned)
We’d continue plowing ahead, despite the interference from these foreigners who – like malicious elves - were busy at work to try to thwart the event.
Tue, Dec 1, 2009 at 4:36 PM
Reply | Reply to all | Forward | Print | Delete | Show original
Hi Jason, I saw the ad in today's Post - is it true Cambofest is cancelled? What happened?
Film Writer Phnom Penh Post
Tue, Dec 1, 2009 at 8:30 PM
To: Dianne Janes
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Hmm...heard about this bad prank. Dianne, do you really think that, after working on this fest for three seasons, and prepping a long time for this event, that we'd announce its cancellation in a free ad in the Post?
Why not actually investigate what's really going on behind the scenes here, in terms of Cambodia's transition to a normal media environment - with eventual real movie theaters, etc - given that resistances* like these are flying around in an attempt to discredit or diminish Cambodia's only currently functioning movie festival?
Could be a great investigative report - if you're willing to take that on!
Have addressed this via various channels, no worries, CFEST still on (of course)!
[* by 'resistances', I'm referring to the concept of resistances in the media environment, an idea proposed by Arvind Singhal and Everett Rogers in their groundbreaking work, "A Theoretical Agenda for Entertainment-Education", cited in my report for RUPP ]
It is generally agreed around Phnom Penh that the Phnom Penh Post tends to cover the more sensational stories happening in Cambodia, while its competitor, the Cambodia Daily tends to be more tempered in this approach.
It’s interesting that the Post hasn’t explored one of the more sensational culture/art stories to happen all year: the attempted sabotage of Cambodia’s only film festival at the hands of malicious foreigners - with their own newspaper being used as a tool in those efforts.
Reply | Reply to all | Forward | Print | Delete |
Show original It sounds more like a petty personal vendetta than a resistance movement.
Best of luck with the festival, I'm glad to hear it's still on.
But then, at the same time, the Camerado (producer of CamboFest) user account was blocked at the unaffiliated Expat Advisory Service, a local website where event announcements and other forum discussions can be made.
We'd made announcements regarding CamboFest and other activities already on the EAS website many times; and while it wasn't the only forum-based website of its kind in Cambodia, it was a handy resource.
Expat Advisory Services
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The username camerado has not been activated or is blocked.
I send an email to the proprietor, Anthony Galloway – but receive no response. It’s a notable item, since the EAS is a moderated system, and we could only be blocked if the site was hacked or if someone on the inside shut us out.
Anyway, two strong local web resources remain friendly for CamboFest's continued promotion within Cambodia: the Khmer 440 website and the Cambodia Parents Group at Yahoo - arguably occupying opposite ends of the Cambodian "wholesomeness" spectrum, yet united at least by their non-interference with CamboFest.
DECEMBER 2, 2009
It’s the day before the launch of CamboFest 2009, and we're finally on our way to Kampot.
Suong Sambath is at the wheel, while I ride shotgun. CamboFest staffers Mr. Tol and Narith Hoo are as excited as I am to be finally heading down for our 3rd annual festival.
We've got all our gear: the generator, equipment, custom-made screen and frame (specially designed to fit the 'Royal'), large venue projector on loan courtesy of the US Embassy, expendables…bags of clothes, various AV and electrical gear...even a visiting filmmaker.
We’re on our way at last, despite all the challenges in getting this far: from the open call for film submissions over a year ago, to the hunt for the Sangkat offices in the ricefields of Kampot…from the fortuitous discovery of the ‘Royal’, to the selection of the final program from the mad heap of movie submissions…from the notification of participating filmmakers, to the preparation of programs.
So I’m telling our filmmaker about the strange goings-on surrounding this year’s CamboFest: I can tell he finds most of it hard to believe.
We’re just outside Takeo when I get a call from Christi Hang, a culture/arts reporter at the Cambodia Daily.
“Hi is this CamboFest?”
“This is Christi Hang from the Cambodia Daily, I’m just calling to see why CamboFest was cancelled this year”
'We received your email announcing the cancellation of the festival"
I’d only just been telling our visiting filmmaker about all the weird interference that’d been going on with the festival this time round – so I kind of smiled and winked at him before telling Christi:
“Uh, it’s not cancelled. That’s probably another prank, we’ve been getting quite a few of them. We’re actually heading down to Kampot right now. I've got a filmmaker in the van. Would you like to talk to him?”
I handed over the phone. He spoke with Christi for a while. Of course she soon realized that the “press release” had indeed been another hoax.
I asked Christi to forward me a copy of the email when she had a chance. She said she would (and she did).
Hoax email sent to the Cambodia Daily and others; examination of the email headers later reveals the email has 'laundered' through the IP address of an anonymizer - but server logs and other data later pinpoints the source nontheless...
From: Microsoft Customer Support
To: The CamboFest Team Subject:
RE: XXX1119185448ID -
Part(s): Download All Attachments (in .zip file)
Headers: Show All Headers
Alternative parts for this section: unnamed [text/html] 8.53 KB
Thank you for patiently waiting for our response.
This is Dvenz and I am a Subject Matter Expert from Windows Live Hotmail Customer Support. Your message was escalated to me and I would like to assist you with your report on the email@example.com account...
DECEMBER 4-6 : CAMBOFEST 2009
Despite the local corruption, the lack of funding, the lack of cinema infrastructure in Cambodia, the absence of a cinema culture and trained staff (all this because of utter annihilation of the industry during the Khmer Rouge era)…
…despite an overall lack of coverage of Cambodia’s only international film festival (as of the time of this writing) in the local press…despite the hoax classifieds printed in the Phnom Penh Post and the annoying phone calls coming from fake ad listings on Bongthom.com…despite the snooping in the art scene and the “clashing of dates” with the other event taking place far away in Phnom Penh…
...and of course, despite the persistent, maligned interference from maligned, foreigner non-Cambodians:
“Loak” cinema, the proprietor of the ‘Royal’ is happy to see us – it’s as if he’s the gatekeeper to the promised land…we made it through the
As soon as we hit Kampot-dirt, we commence a vigorous, grass-roots, local outreach in Kampot and Kep to scoop in the traveler/tourist demographic which had likely not been impacted by the hoax ad in the Post.
We rent a local moto, and Narith Hoo attaches our mega-loudpeaker to it. We fill Narith’s basket with flyers to hand out , and off he goes, smile beaming on his face, megaphone beckoning to all the prime cinema-goers in Kampot town and srok srei alike: “CamboFest movie festival today at Royal Cinema’: Eggman -style (in English and Khmer).
Fueled on fried noodles and coconuts (as we all are) Narith refreshes his basket with flyers and posters on a continuous basis…all day long, postering and flyering, Kampot and Kep, handing out flyers to travelers, guests, Cambodians in the rice fields. He passes his flyers to the movie fans who are already filtering towards the South coast and the magic-magnet of the ‘Royal’ cinema.
“Loak” cinema - the owner of the 'Royal' - is happy, beaming. Days later, after the festival wraps, and stunned by its exstacy and hardship, we are all sitting at Kampot’s “Year 2000” restaurant with Da Boyz – all Cambodian, his friends in the army and government and police.
He’s proudly regaling them with tales of his rejuvenated cinema house. His pal with the long fingernail on his pinky finger concurs, nodding sweetly, before paying for all our drinks and heading off in his LEXUS.
Cutting back to the actual CamboFest event: now that the generator is chugging, and the brilliant beam of Uncle Sam’s projector is tossing photons against the furthest wall, and the ‘Royal’ itself is groaning awake from its years-long slumber, our staffer Narith’s eager, boyish expression belies no knowledge of the recent rash of interference propagated by foreign guests in his Kingdom.
Narith knows nothing yet of the persons who have labored to thwart his movie event, his CamboFest, Cambodia’s only functioning international movie festival* (*at the time, at least).
Narith just continues to patiently tend to the generator, to ride his moto-loudspeaker without being hassled by the Man, to hand out invitations to the guests: to play his part in conjuring cinema back to Cambodia.
In between raw cloves of garlic (for health and power, of course), and plenty of smokes, I engage in constant blogging with my puny netbook, undertaking web outreach with one hand,and text messaging festival updates with the other.
It’s true that the hoax classified printed in the Phnom Penh Post may have impacted attendance, the question is: how much? While many local expats in Phnom Penh were confused about the status of the festival, travelers and tourists, especially those outside of the expat enclave of Phnom Penh, touring through Kep and Kampot are showing up in increasing numbers.
A convoy of Tuk Tuks arrive in front of the ‘Royal’. I almost forgot they were coming - it’s the group of university students who’ve come out all the way to Kampot from Ho Chi MInh City.
They all look clean, neat, fabulous, squeaky…the young women are well-styled and gorgeous.
They all have large new cameras around their necks; they chatter excitedly and snap pictures of the ‘Royal’s old façade, before heading inside to catch the next movie session.
Meanwhile, the gear is working remarkably well. The custom screen we built for the ‘Royal’ is perfect, nearly seamless despite its three-panel construction. The 7000+ lumens projector – a business-like, dense, 25kg square of media-machine on loan from the US Embassy, unfurls it beam across the old Cambodian cinema house.
The alchemic rectangle shimmers brightly despite ambient midday light which streams in through the ‘Royal’s broken roof...
The ‘Royal’: who sat here and watched back in 1966, before the region fell into the crucible of War? I have no time to think it: I’m Kurz’s boiler-keeper, tending only to the ship with no time to greet them (til later, at least, til now)
CamboFest staff are still using radios to communicate, but by now the hoax ads, announcing the Phantom items for sale, are tapering away now that the show has begun.
DECEMBER 6, 2009
Seth Meixner, editor of the Post, confirms by SMS message that a correction of the 2nd hoax ad, ‘Cambofest cancelled’, was indeed printed - but little did we know then that the correction was actually placed on the last day of the festival. I later contacted the CEO of the Post himself (Michel Dauguet), who stated that he "thought it made sense to place the correction in the same day of the week as the fake announcement had been made"...which would be the last day of the festival.
On our side, we all assume that the correction had been placed the next day…we’re all too busy wrapping Day 3 to think about it much more.
DECEMBER 6, 2009, Cont.
CamboFest 2009 wraps – after the final show and the Cooling of the Great Bulb, we all head to Kampot's “Bushmeat Restaurant” (unnamed Cambodian grilled beef joint). I insist that Narith Hoo - CamboFest staffer, motodop, colleague and friend of mine, who speaks no English, yet understands everything when I speak my mixed Khmer – must come to the bushmeat restaurant to be regaled as a hero.
He is the nuts and bolts of the festival, the gristle, the marrow, the real ‘srok srei’ Cambodian.
We eat and drink and smoke: filmmaker James Speck is there, various travelers, Chuunly Puy (winner of the 2007 CamboFest Golden Buffalo) ‘Simongoloid’ Toffanello (Phnom Penh photographer)…and the exhausted, but flushed, CamboFest staff.
I’m tired, zonked. I can only think of watching Mega Fish on NatGeo back at the Little Garden guesthouse, and falling into the arms of Sleep (Brother of Death...)
DECEMBER 7, 2009
Originally planned as our awards day, but we don’t have enough time to tabulate the audience choice ballots. We’re all toasted from the effort of producing the event. Instead, we go to Kep and wallow in the sea at Crown o’clock and enjoy a seafood lunch - we head back to Phnom Penh in the mid afternoon.
I can see, along the sunset roads of Kampon Trach, the vast fold of fields and accompanying, unknown mounds of the Cambodian countryside. Mr. Sambath is stoic at his wheel, while Mr. Tol shares some kind of Japanese peanut snack with us all.
And Narith, skinny and tough as a bamboo stalk, ever smiling, smiles as placidly as Lord Buddha himself:
I know that every kid who glides by on his bicycle is riding with us.
DECEMBER 8, 2009 – After a day off to sleep after wrapping this year's CamboFest, I need to shift gears immediately to write the final draft of my Masters report for Royal University of Phnom Penh, an effort that had actually been ongoing throughout the production of CamboFest itself with whatever scraps of time I could find between managing the event.
I'm curious to look into all the intrigue and interference that happened at this year's CamboFest, to find out more about who was behind it all.
But I won't have time until after I deliver the report on January 1st...
Congrats on the success of this years edition (I made the Massacrator movie).
As bad as they were, it seems to me that hoaxes and interferences might be the best things to happen to you; it makes for an interesting follow up and great drama. A small Asian festival that succeeds is ok, but a small Asian festival that succeeds despite conspiracies is memorable.
You'll likely get some more press with that one item!
Regards and keep up the good work,
A local Kampot youth group, YAHRD, is trained to run the show for the 4th edition of CamboFest taking place March 2011 Flaherty's classic arctic doc, 'Nanook of the North' enjoys its official Cambodian premiere (with the permission of IFS and the Flaherty estate) at long last - 88 years after its release
Unfortunately, foreign-run pirate movie venues in Cambodia are thriving now more than ever, and they continue to rip off filmmakers and studios while negatively impacting Cambodia's reputation in the international media trade.
Just consider: when an international filmmaker discovers their film has been screened in Cambodia without their knowledge or permission - Cambodia suffers.
It becomes 'the Cambodians' who ripped off the film...not the actual foreign venue owner who made the decision to screen the movie, sourced the title* (*as an illegal download, if it's a first run Hollywood film), and makes a living off concession sales and admission fees, with nary a penny going to the producer of the film.
Over the past several years since the original writing of The CamboFest Story, pirate venue owners in Phnom Penh have become savvier, more clever. Now that the issues of public performance rights and copyright for films has been well-raised (through incidents like those seen above) these venue owners now invariably attempt to disguise their core pirate operations under the guise or of some kind of an ostensible community orientation or service.
Like a sleigh of hand showman, or snake oil salesman, effusive displays of anti-piracy sentiment are made by these foreign pirate cinema venue owners in Phnom Penh in the local press (who invariably, unwittingly, laps it up)
With astonishing gall, some of these proprietors actually make efforts to depict themselves as 'crusaders against piracy'...while simultaneously loading the next illegally downloaded video file into their projector!
In the process, they attempt cover their bogus operations with their community-minded smokescreen, all testament to the saying:
They the term 'community center' or 'cultural center' now finds its way into their venue descriptions, concealing their actual deceitful core.
Or, more insidiously, a humble, altrusitic explanation is offered: the movies are intended to educate the Cambodian people after 30 years of hardship and civil war* - with the foreign pirate shamelessly exploiting the recent troubled legacy of the Cambodian people as a way to justify fattening themselves and filling their pockets.
For example: 2010 Cannes award winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul was disappointed to learn that his title, 'UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES' had been slated to screen in Phnom Penh at a popular foreign run cinema venue with a long history of non-diligence.
The filmmaker emailed the venue proprietor; the venue operator's response was as follows:
"We are not charging entrance fees, as we believe that - in order to help to develop the young Cambodian film scene after 30 yrs of turmoil - it is important to screen arthouse films and documentaries especially from neighbouring countries. In the case of Thailand we also hope that it helps to improve understanding inbetween Cambodia and Thailand, given the recent (political) problems and the urgent need for reconciliation."
*this, in stark contrast to the actual demographics observable at these foreign run pirate movie venues: an overwhelmingly affluent (comparative to Cambodian nationals) foreign audience.
The filmmaker commented on this particualr Phnom Penh venue as follows in an email to Camerado's J Rosette (founder of the CamboFest film festival):
It's hoped that the filmmaker's perspective should in any case take precedence over any claim (or excuse) of venue owner: the filmmaker and the rightful distribution partners have a RIGHT to determine the use and compensation of their filmed work.
Thus, these innocent seeming 'community' and 'cultural centers in Phnom Penh continue to blast through filmmakers' copyrights with impunity, while pocketing the illicit proceeds from 'donations', ticket sales*, and concession sales.
*Although, often, these foreign venue owners attempt to deflect any questions about accepting hard cash in exchange for exhibiting their pirated titles to the public; terms like 'donation' are used instead of admission fee. Or the following explanation is offered: the revenue goes towards projection costs, or air conditioning, or some other seemingly innocent expense - as if allocating the money towards this area of an illicit enterprise is acceptable, versus another.
Another interesting trait of these venue owners can be observed, particularly when they are questioned or approached by anyone with a pro-filmmaker point of view: the foreign venue owners are the victims - not the filmmakers whose titles are being ripped off.
"Oh it's so hard out here, there aren't any real cinemas"
"Hmmm. Is anyone forcing you to live in Cambodia?"
"So it's your choice?"
"But we can't afford to license the movies"
"Well, did you even ask - maybe the filmmakers would cut you a deal?"
"Well, no - but we don't have the time to deal with them all!"
"Then maybe your current business model isn't viable, or you have to adjust it, if the only way you can function is to steal from filmmakers to make it happen"
All at the expense of Cambodia's reputation in the regional and international media trade...
But what do these foreigners care? It's just Cambodia. Use the country to rip people off, til you can't any more. Who cares about the impact on the local movie industry or the country's reputation internationally?
Then, like a proper con-artist or snake oil salesman: move on.
Ultimately, it's the next generation of Cambodians, particularly the film and media makers, who need to step up to the plate to educate these foreigner pirate venue owners who are utilizing lax governance in their country to abuse copyright, rip off filmmakers, and foul Cambodia's reputation in the international media trade.
Along these lines, Camerado applauds the efforts of emerging Cambodian filmmaker and youth groups like 4K, who launched the recent FilmCamp effort in Cambodia, or the YAHRD youth group who took part in the 4th edition of CamboFest, Cambodia Film Festival (www.cambofest.com).
The following notes and suggestions were provided to emerging Cambodian filmmakers at the 2012 FilmCamp as some ways to improve the Cambodian film industry - note also the suggested implementation of a Cambodian youth task force to observe, educate, and root out foreigners who are abusing motion picture copyright in Cambodia:
Appendix: A few reactions from filmmakers whose work is being exhibited in Cambodia without their knowledge or permission, contributing to negative perceptions of Cambodia abroad.
Re: Screening of UNCLE BOONMEE
Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 11:11 AM
To: Thania Dimitrakopoulou
Cc: Kick the Machine Office
'Hot Coffee' Screening in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Hot Coffee the Movie
Sat, Feb 25, 2012 at 11:51 AM
From: maripol [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, March 16, 2012 8:47 PM
To: CAMBOFEST, Cambodia Film Festival
Subject: Re: Hello NY Beat Films re: Downtown 81 in SE Asia