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A Profile of Mao Ayuth

February 2, 2011

Here is a piece I wrote for the catalogue of the Cambodia International Film Festival earlier this year.


Water Festival in Phnom Penh, 2009. A sight you do not get to see very often in Cambodia: People standing in line to see a movie. While teams of rowers in dragon boats paddle down the Tonle Sap river in front of a festive crowd on the river banks of the city, long queues form in front of the box office of the Chenla Theatre to see a movie that was originally released four years ago: “Ne Sat Kror Per” (The Crocodile, 2005).

This triumph belongs to Mao Ayuth´s, 66, veteran film maker and living chronicle of Cambodian cinema. He cunningly never released the film on DVD or VCD, thereby keeping it from the pirate market. Therefore he can re-release the film time and again on public holidays and during festivals to great public acclaim. The action movie, that stars popular karaoke singer Preap Sovath and was financed by Hang Meas Video Production, best know for an endless stream of Karaoke videos, is considered to be one of the most expensive movies in Cambodian film history with its budget of US$ 100.000. It is loosely based on Mao Ayuth´s childhood memories of crocodile hunters, and tells the story of San (Nhem Sokunthol) who lost his family, friends and almost his own life to crocodiles. He is pursuing Kror Per Nak Ta, the Crocodile King. The movie features exciting hunting scenes with live crocodiles and colorful recreations of rural life in Cambodia, and makes good use of the importance that crocodiles have in Khmer lore.

Mao Ayuth, Photo: Mesa Lang

Mao Ayuth, Photo: Mesa Lang

“The Crocodile” is so far the last of the eight movies that Mao directed in a career that spans more than four decades of the media history of Cambodia. He is one of the few film makers that survived the bloody terror regime of the Khmer Rouge. Together with actress Dy Saveth, and directors Yvon Hem and Ly Bun Yim, he is among the few movie people whose work connects the film industry of the present with the “Golden Age” of Khmer cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Khmer Rouge crushed everything that they considered to be decadent, Western-oriented culture.

We meet him for an interview in his office in the Ministry of Information, where he is a Secretary of State. His Excellency sits in a leather arm chair and recalls his eventful life, every inch an elder statesmen of Cambodian cinema in his cream-colored suit. A picture of Angkor Wat hangs on the wall, next to maps that show the terrestrial coverage of the National Television Kampuchea (TVK), where he used to be General Director. His desk is cluttered with books and other documents.

Born in 1944 in the Srey Sonthor district of Kompong Cham province, he started his film career, when he took part in a script writing program that the Ministry of Information sponsored from 1963 to 1965. It was held by Ieu Pannakar, who himself was among the first Cambodians who studied film making in France with the support of King Norodom Sihanouk, then Head of State. The young writer, who admired French poets such Victor Hugo and La Fontaine and who dreamed of becoming a singer like Cambodian superstar Sin Sisamuth, started to work at the first Cambodian television station TVRK, that was founded by King Sihanouk in 1964. He started out as a production assistant and went on to become program director, in charge of the two hours of programming that the station would broadcast every night between 6 pm and 8 pm.

In the early 1970s, he went to France with a stipend of the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française (ORTF), the national agency that provided public radio and television in France from 1964 to 1974. While in Europe, he shot some scenes for his first feature film “Beth Phnek Hek Troung” (Close my eyes, open my heart, 1975) during a vacation in the Alps in Switzerland with a 16-milimeter camera that he had brought along and that he had to wind up by hand between takes.

The sly trick to include a holiday movie into a feature film would turn out to be characteristic for Mao´s way of making films as well as of the Cambodian cinema industry in general that had to make do with the modest means that it had at its disposal. The scenes of snow-covered mountains, ski lifts and tourists in fur hats and thick winter coats provided an exotic location for a film from tropical Cambodia, when he inserted scenes of Khmer superstar Kong Sam Oeun – who plays a Cambodian business man in France – that were shot back home in Phnom Penh.

As the protagonist of the movie, Kong has to return to Cambodia, when his twin brother (also played by the prolific actor, who acted in more than 100 films in his career that lasted from 1960 to 1975) has been murdered. He falls in love with his brother’s widow (Kim Nova), who eventually gives in to his advances. The film was shot in six weeks, financed as the first (and due to tragic historic developments, last) production by the newly-founded production company Bopea, basically a group of friends that put up the money for Mao´s debut. It was a success that played in the cinemas Capitol and Chenla (where „The Crocodile“ was premiered in 2005) for more than a month.

As only one print of the film was made, messengers had to drive the film reels back and forth from one theatre to the other, while the movie was showing. The film was so successful that Mao even published a novel based on the script that contained stills from the film. A copy of the small paperback that survived the Khmer Rouge regime is now a permanent fixture on his desk at the Ministry of Information. (The film itself, as the majority of the Cambodian films of that time, is lost.)

It turned out to be one of the last films that were made in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, the end of a short, but colorful period of film making in the country that lasted only one decade and a half. The first Khmer feature film was made only in 1960. In the fifteen years that followed, around 450 films were produced; typically fantasy films based on traditional folklore stories, often based on the Ramayana, that were screened in the more than 30 cinemas in Phnom Penh to an audience that was positively cinema-crazy.

Back then, Cambodia easily had the most international cinema scene in all of the countries of Southeast Asia. The foreign films that were shown in the theatres were not just from former colonial ruler France and the omnipresent USA, but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan and even from countries such as West Germany, Cuba, the Sowjetunion, the Philippines and India, with Bollywood being a particularly strong influence on the Cambodian cinema that developed in the 1960s.

All that came to an end, when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and forced the whole population to leave the city within 24 hours to take part in their bizarrely misguided, murderous experiment to create an agrarian socialism. During the time, when Mao´s debut was screened, the writing was already on the wall: the people of Phnom Penh could hear the detonations of the Khmer Rouge army coming closer almost every day. Bombs exploded in some cinemas, a dark premonition of the ominous terror that would soon drown the country in its own blood.

It was sheer luck that Mao Ayuth survived the Pol Pot period. He pretended to be a wedding photographer, when interrogated by Khmer Rouge cadres, and got away with it after a lie detector test. He survived as a peasant, fisherman and laborer. He recalls: “During this whole time, I had only one wish: to survive and to make a film about all of this, for better and worse.” It would take more than a decade until he had the opportunity to do so.

After the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Mao returned to civil service, and – together with his former teacher Ieu Pannakar – set up the Department of Cinema, a government organization in charge of film censorship and the support of the local film industry. „When I came into office, the first thing I did was to look for former film dubbers“, Mao recalls. As the local film industry was eliminated and would require a decade to recover, the only films available for the cinemas that slowly started to open again came – via Vietnam – from „socialist brother countries“: the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia. Just as in the times before the Khmer Rouge, they had to be dubbed during the projection by experienced live dubbers, who would often voice the parts of various characters in the film during each screening.

The Vietnamese trained some Cambodian documentary film makers, who were among the first to go on to make the first feature films in Cambodia in the late 1980s. Slowly new film equipment was brought into the country. As a Deputy Head of the Film Department in the Ministry of Propaganda, Information and Culture, Mao had access to some of the most advanced cameras and production equipment, and made his second film in late 1988, thirteen years after his debut: “Chet Chong Cham” (I Want To Remember, 1989), a story of survival set during the Republican period under Lon Nol (1970 – 1975), under the Khmer Rouge and in the present, that is told in flashbacks-within-flashbacks.

The budget for the film that was shot on analog video: US$ 400, not excessive for a historical epic by anybody´s standards. (Leading man Kai Prosith performed for free, a gamble that paid of, as he became one of the most popular Cambodian actors of the 1990s.) Even today, “Chet Chong Cham” looks good – especially considering the budget – and captures fascinating views of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge. Mao is currently working on a new cut, as he feels that some of the scenes of the 150-minute-movie are too long.

Mao recalls: “When we showed the film at the Vimean Tip cinema on Monivong Boulevard, then known as Moscow, it was so successful, that I sometimes had to use a belt to keep the crowd in line at the doors of the cinema.” A public hungry for a retelling of their recent history rushed to see the movie, leaving the director with the challenging task to carry the box office takings in bags to the Department of Cinema a couple of blocks to the north of the cinema each night. In the same year, Cambodians were treated to American (Roland Joffé´s “The Killing Fields” from 1984 that had a belated premiere in Cambodia in that year) and Czech (Milan Muchna´s “Nine Circles of Hell”) versions of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, plus another local film on that period: Yvon Hem´s Shadow of Darkness (1989).

In the following years, Mao Ayuth rose through the ranks, worked for the UNTAC that took over the administration of Cambodia in 1992, became director of the National Television Kampuchea (TVK), then Secretary of State in the Ministry of Information. He also managed to make six more films despite his official duties. His last film was his most ambitious production: “Ne Sat Kror Per” (The Crocodile, 2005), that still draws crowds today, even during Phnom Penh´s Water Festival.

Mao´s last work is the script for ”Kilesa” (Obsession), the story of a polygamist set during the Colonial period, that is directed by Roeun Narith and will premier at the Cambodia International Film Festival. And then there is his dream project, “The Crocodile II”, a sequel to his greatest success, for which he has not found the necessary funding so far. It is not very likely that he will any time soon, given the current state of the Cambodian film industry, that has been brought to its knees by the lack of interest of the public, by video piracy and by the absence of exhibition spaces, as most of Cambodia´s cinemas have closed.

But then again, Mao Ayuth has a history of making seemingly impossible films possible.

Tilman Baumgärtel


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