Surviving Genocide and Telling a Cambodian Story Through Film
Kulikar Sotho survived the Cambodian genocide and, years later, ended up working on ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.’ Now she’s the first Cambodian female director to represent her country at the Oscars.
Director Kulikar Sotho. Photo courtesy of Hanuman Films
Sitting in a café in Phnom Penh, Kulikar Sotho sips tea as she raves about her favourite film, the Japanese classic Rashomon, and—although "his films are not anywhere my style"—the brash and brazen Quentin Tarantino.
Sotho's come a long way. A survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, as a young girl, she never thought of making films herself. The 41-year old is now the first woman director submitted as Cambodia's nomination for the Oscars' Foreign Language Film category.
Her film, The Last Reel, was also her first ever feature. It tells the story of a girl who stumbles upon an old film starring her mother, played by legendary Cambodian star Dy Saveth. But with the last reel missing, the girl sets out to complete the film, and through it discovers her family's secrets, and the country's war-torn history.
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The story is not unlike Sotho's. "I always wanted to know the history of my family because I don't know anything at all. My mother would not talk about it," she said.
Sotho was born in Phnom Penh just over a year before the Khmer Rouge took over the capital in 1975. Of her family, only she, her mother, and younger sister survived. "My mother brought us up as a mother and father at the same time. She's an incredibly strong lady. I owe everything to her for who I am today," Sotho says.
Growing up, she couldn't exactly dream of making movies. True, the 1960s and early '70s were Cambodia's golden era of cinema. Between 1960 and 1975, over 350 feature films were produced in Cambodia—not least thanks to the patronage of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the late king who was himself a prolific film director.
That ended with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's reign oversaw the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million, targeting especially intellectuals and artists.
"Statistically, a lot of the filmmakers died," said Davy Chou, a Cambodian-French filmmaker who has documented that period. "The films were mainly abandoned in the studio and as nobody was really taking care of that matter after 1979, they were sadly lost, thrown away or forgotten."
Even as the country was rebuilding, traditional society imposed certain expectations. "I think there's always more challenge as a woman in a male-dominated society. Women have to work triple hard to be heard," Sotho says.
"This, of course, isn't specific to Cambodia. Even in Hollywood, male directors outnumber the female directors," noted Mariam Arthur, the chairperson of the Cambodian Oscar Selection Committee.
For us, our story is part of us.
But in a country where most are impoverished, the gender divide was even more entrenched by a lack of resources. "The perception within Khmer culture is that men are dominant, and this also carries over into filmmaking. Men tend to feel more confidence to be more entrepreneurial, and women tend to view a job as a way to help support their family rather than have an independent career," Arthur said.
After graduating high school, Sotho went straight to work, helping her mother's fledgling tourism business. Unexpectedly, it became her unlikely entry into film. After post-war Cambodia opened up in the 1990s, foreign film productions tapped Sotho to scout for locations and handle logistics. She and her husband then co-founded local production company Hanuman Films.
Sotho's biggest early project was the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, when she worked to prepare the shoot in Angkor Wat: "Locations, putting logistics together, permissions, crew, casting," she said.
"And then, during the shoot, my responsibility was to make sure that the communication between all the departments was flowing very well. But I didn't just want to do that job, I wanted to be on the site," she said. "So I negotiated with the producer to allow me to go on the site, which I got to. That was a really big eye opener."
"From seeing the script to see the actual actors, directors, producers, how the camera moved around, how they captured the emotions of the cast, how they captured the angles of the scenery, it was just amazing. That was when I felt this is what I want to do, too."
It didn't come quickly. Over the next decade, she went on to work on more foreign and local projects. She served as a line producer on the 2011 Australian production Wish You Were Here (2011), and co-produced the love story Ruin in 2013.
"By working with foreign crew, it also led me to a desire to want to tell a Cambodian story from a Cambodian perspective, because there is a different emotion between foreign filmmakers telling a Cambodian story and a Cambodian filmmaker telling a Cambodian story," she said. "For us, our story is part of us."
The Last Reel took two years to make, and it was tough for the debut director. "There's always more questions towards women and we have to explain. The best example of that is when I was working on my film. I felt almost like I had been put in a court to justify my vision," Sotho says.
She remembers a particular fight with her first assistant director, a more veteran filmmaker, over a scene involving cows inside a movie theatre. "On the shoot he said, 'I don't want the cows because it's not hygienic,'" she says, recalling how she told him, "I am not going to shoot until I have cows in the cinema."
"Eventually I got cows and we started shooting," she said, laughing. "You know, it's things like that. I have never fought in my life like I fought in the whole time of shooting. One thing I've learned is that: Don't ever let your vision run away from you. As a director, you own that vision. At the end, they will respect you."
Now, the country's film industry is growing, and more women are taking the rein. "Cambodia is witnessing a steady and constant growth," said Cedric Eloy, international consultant to the Cambodian Film Commission. From zero theatres in 2011, the country now has 20 screens.
"There are several recent success stories of young female filmmakers recently," Eloy added. They include documentarian Lida Chan, whose Red Wedding won an award at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. And last year, Sothea Ines' short film Rice took first prize at Tropfest Southeast Asia.
Arthur, who helped to selected Sotho as Cambodia's Oscar hopeful, hopes the trend continues. "In the film industry, there is really only one way to change this. Studios and producers need to fund film projects by female directors," she said. The Last Reelwon the Spirit of Asia Award at its premiere last year at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Now, it's Cambodia's chance at the Oscars.
"Everything is a surprise for me," Sotho says, smiling.