Imagine a time when Cambodia had no internationally recognized film festival, no platform for local and international filmmakers to showcase their talent. That was until 2007 when CamboFest came onto the scene, stemming from founder Jason Rosette‘s studies as a Masters student in International Development Studies at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Thus, CamboFest became Cambodia’s first internationally recognized film festival. This grassroots event, fueled by crowdfunding, volunteerism, and modest sponsorships, aimed to revive Cambodia’s cinema industry and promote a movie culture in the country.
The Early Years of CamboFest
In its first two years, CamboFest took place in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. But it wasn’t just limited to physical venues; a YouTube-style online video portal called CamboTube was also utilized, providing a platform for filmmakers to reach a wider audience. However, due to bandwidth and user access limitations, this component had to be abandoned in later editions.
Then came the historic third edition in 2009. CamboFest discovered the forgotten gem, the ‘Royal’ cinema hall in Kampot. This once-defunct cinema, which had lain unused since the Khmer Rouge era, was brought back to life with a custom screen and power plant installation. Despite foreign movie pirates’ attempts to disrupt the event with fake press releases and classified ads, the 2009 ‘Royal’ edition of CamboFest prevailed, reviving a piece of Cambodian cinema history.
Challenges and Resilience
Unfortunately, while CamboFest aimed to revive the Cambodian cinema industry, larger, well-capitalized EU-French funded events saw the festival as a threat to their dominance. They used their resources to interfere with CamboFest’s operations, attempting to diminish its viability and sustainability. However, the festival endured thanks to the determination of individual contributors who stepped in to fill the gap.
CamboFest’s fourth edition in 2011 marked a significant milestone. The festival was handed off to a local Cambodian youth group, the Youth Association for Human Resource Development (YAHRD), who took charge of operating the event. They managed equipment, greeted and informed guests, and even conducted outreach and publicity. Their efforts culminated in the long-awaited official Cambodian premiere of Robert Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of the North,’ 88 years after its initial release.
Paving the Way For Others
Since its inception, CamboFest has been an innovator, paving the way for many other cinema events which followed. For instance, CamboFest pioneered online and virtual submissions systems integration, partnering with Withoutabox in 2007 – a move which other events in the region soon followed.
Later, CamboFest pivoted to using FilmFreeway to streamline its submission process. Soon, other events, including the Cambodia International Film Festival (coming 2 years later), mimicked CamboFest and adopted that platform as well.
Although other regional cinema events frequently viewed the grass roots CamboFest as a rival effort and competitor due to its unaffiliated nature, when CamboFest developed an operational or methodological way forward, other events and efforts invariably followed suit.
The Future of CamboFest
While the traditional cinema sector in Cambodia has been largely supplanted by streaming and app-based video platforms, there is hope for CamboFest’s return in a different format. The festival may adapt to the changing landscape, embracing new technologies and platforms to continue promoting Cambodian and international films.
Reviving Cambodia’s film industry and nurturing a movie culture is not an easy task. CamboFest’s journey, filled with challenges and resilience, serves as a testament to the passion and dedication of those involved. As we await the return of CamboFest, let us remember the festival’s significant contributions to Cambodia’s cinema history and celebrate the power of independent, grassroots initiatives in shaping the future of film!