Kong Sovansreychhouk grew up hearing stories of the fear, horror and depression her grandparents felt throughout the years of the Khmer Rouge genocide, like most young adults in the country.
But more often than not, the 30-year-old film director, who goes by Chhouk, said her grandparents stories involved romance, humor and the mediocrity of daily life. Love is often lost in stories from this era, Chhouk said, so she is trying to use her scriptwriting and directing abilities to add to the narrative through her new movie, The Rice Field.
Chhouk is one of Cambodia’s young directors who has received recognition for her eye for stories and creative perspective on love and life. Even though filmmaking requires her to invest time, money and energy outside her fulltime job, Chhouk is determined to bring her art and passion to life.
Her first film, The Rice Field, tells the fictional story of Rous, a young woman from Phnom Penh who falls in love with a young soldier, Kor. Though it’s a love story does not shy away from the fear and struggle experienced by Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.
About a minute or two into her short film, The Rice Field, the view of the Kampong Chhnang setting shifts from black and white to rich yellows of the afternoon sun and lush green grass.
The scene encapsulates an anecdote Chhouk heard about the Khmer Rouge era from her grandmother: the days of hunger were so intense that she has no memory of color or landscape or light. The elderly woman only remembers black and white.
But when she received some food or a reassurance from a family member or compatriot, just as main character Rous receives rice and a love note in the film, everything around her became clear.
When the credits rolled after the Sunday night screening for the Chaktomuk Film Festival, the handful of moviegoers gave Chhouk’s film a strong applause and had multiple questions for her later. Both her grandparents sat with her through the film.
Thank you everyone that you like The Rice Field #chuaktumokshortfilmfestival#. ขอบคุณทุกคนที่ชอบ the rice field #เทศกาหนังสัน ๒๐๑๗#จตุมุกสอตฟิม 2017*
Chhouk completed the 15-minute movie in a month and a half, which she didn’t think would be possible without a strong crew beside her.
Filming scenes in a Kampong Chhnang rice field presented challenges. Not only did she have to cover some of the transportation costs for her crew and equipment, but they had to navigate around two days of a rainy season storm. And when the storm finally stopped, hundreds of worms invaded the set, nauseating her and the rest of the crew.
Her class at the Cambodian Film Lab pushed her to complete the film, but the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture helped her through logistics.
They offered her lighting to complete the romantic nighttime dream sequence and provided the Khmer Rouge costumes, the same ones used in Angelina Jolie’s movie released this year, First They Killed My Father.
The reaction to her film has been worth sharing her fictional narrative, she said. The Culture Ministry lauded her creation at its first screening in December last year, and the film was ranked one of the top ten productions that night.
Chhouk was thrilled to get positive feedback from those who survived the genocide, who said they liked the story but thought the props were not accurate for the era.
Some people told her they didn’t believe a romantic story should be portrayed during the Khmer Rouge area, but they admitted that they enjoyed the plot.
“My teacher really appreciated that I made the film because the young generations need to talk about it to remember, because sometimes when we don’t know about the experience, society could move in that direction again,” she said.
Even though she received plenty of support from her team and film teacher, Chhouk said filmmaking is a challenging process, in which hundreds of unexpected little issues arise during the shoot and post production.
“If you are a writer or a filmmaker, you have to make films for yourself, too.”
For her next project, she’s talking to a Cambodian lawyer living in the United States who fell in love with her film. She cannot name him yet, but he wrote a nonfiction novel through love letters to his sweetheart in the period before the Khmer Rouge, and he wants to see her adapt it into a film.
Chhouk had the chance to take a film course and learn how to transform a novel into a screenplay, but it is one of the few available in Cambodia. There are few resources for screenwriters who want to turn their scripts into reality, she said.
But Chhouk will take the challenge. Cambodian writers penned many beautiful novels, and she hopes to give some of them new life on the screen. It’s her passion as a screenwriter, she said.
“If you are a writer or a filmmaker you have to make your films for yourself too,” she explained. “I ask myself who I am: I am sensitive, I am a girl, I like to imagine a lot and so I write romance and drama.”
This article previously said Chhouk took a film class with Cambodian Film Commission. The class was with Cambodian Film Lab, and the article has been updated to reflect that change.