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Film­maker Ku­likar Sotho re­veals her in­spi­ra­tions


AJa­panese man stands on a bridge in far­away Cam­bo­dia, the haunt­ing melody of his lost love’s voice wash­ing over him. Hav­ing re­turned to the coun­try where he fell for a woman named Mealea in the 1970s, Fukuda hopes to re­claim her heart after an ab­sence span­ning two decades, only to find that she has died. The tragedy of this thwarted cross-bor­der love is the cen­tral story in Be­yond the Bridge, the lat­est film from ac­claimed Cam­bo­dian di­rec­tor Ku­likar Sotho.

If the emo­tions feel real, it’s be­cause they are. As with her de­but film, The Last Reel, Sotho drew on her own ex­pe­ri­ences to tell the fic­tional tale, in­cor­po­rat­ing the suf­fer­ing her mother has felt since los­ing her hus­band dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge era. “In many ways, the sur­vivor car­ries an even deeper weight, a big­ger weight than the per­son who is gone,” said Sotho.

“For so many years, I never knew [any­thing] about my fa­ther. And [my mother] de­cided to tell me after The Last Reel. She said to me that for my fa­ther, who is gone, his suf­fer­ing is also gone. She is sur­viv­ing and she is sur­rounded by ev­ery­thing that is the legacy of their love.

“That I built into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mealea and Fukuda. And he was a beau­ti­ful ac­tor; he por­trayed it very well. The mo­ment he stands on the bridge, I feel that emo­tion, that weight on him.”

Sotho, 43, got her start as a trans­la­tor and fixer for Lonely Planet TV in 1999, but her first taste of the film world was on the set of Tomb Raider, a 2001 Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion star­ring An­gelina Jolie, which was partly filmed at the tem­ples of Angkor in Siem Reap. As a line pro­ducer, Sotho’s po­si­tion was fo­cused on lo­gis­tics and ad­min­is­tra­tion. But it was the cre­ative side that cap­ti­vated her in­ter­est.

“I was very fas­ci­nated when I was on the film set, see­ing how the di­rec­tor worked with ac­tors, how he con­trolled ev­ery­thing from his mon­i­tors, how the cin­e­matog­ra­phers worked, and how the art depart­ment cre­ated this amaz­ing set. And I just feel like it was a beau­ti­ful trans­for­ma­tion… To read the script on the pa­per and to see it be­ing trans­formed onto the set and be­ing shot – I just felt, like, amaz­ing,” she said.

“And then, when I was invited to the premiere in Los An­ge­les, the film opened with Cam­bo­dia, and I was so emo­tional see­ing Cam­bo­dia on the big screen, be­cause Cam­bo­dia is such a for­got­ten coun­try by the world. To see

it on a big in­ter­na­tional stage, it was just… I felt like I wanted to do some­thing for my coun­try at that mo­ment.”

She then worked on a se­ries of doc­u­men­taries, most of which ex­plored the Kh­mer Rouge pe­riod. Watch­ing for­eign film­mak­ers fram­ing Cam­bo­dian sto­ries from an out­sider’s per­spec­tive was a fur­ther prompt to try her own hand at the cin­e­matic craft.

“You know, for them, it is in­for­ma­tion for the world – there is no story at­tach­ment to them… be­cause it’s not their story. So I felt like I wanted to tell the Cam­bo­dian story from [the point of view of] an in­sider – from the voice, from the in­ner voice [of some­one] who lived with the legacy [of the Kh­mer Rouge]. And that was the mo­ment that I de­cided I would do a film about Cam­bo­dia.”

Sotho’s abil­ity to weave the deeply per­sonal into her films has been, per­haps, what has made them so mem­o­rable for au­di­ences. Her de­but film, The Last Reel, fol­lows a young girl, Sophoun, who dis­cov­ers that her mother starred in a film dur­ing Cam­bo­dia’s ‘Golden Age’ of cin­ema, which saw hun­dreds of films made in the 1960s and early 1970s. On find­ing out that the last reel of the film is miss­ing, Sophoun de­cides to fin­ish the film her­self – hop­ing to heal her fam­ily in the process.

“Through her love for her mother, [she was] driven to com­plete the film. And, in many ways, it is the love that I have for my mother that leads me, that gives me this de­ter­mi­na­tion to make the film,” Sotho said of the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween her­self and the cen­tral char­ac­ter.

“Emo­tion­ally, it is very much based on my fam­ily. Si­t­u­a­tion­ally, it is the sit­u­a­tion of all Cam­bo­di­ans. I can’t say it is just my own fam­ily, be­cause ev­ery Cam­bo­dian has more or less the same scars that we have and ex­pe­ri­ences we are strug­gling to get through, to come out of it.”

The film was crit­i­cally ac­claimed and toured the in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val cir­cuit, pick­ing up sev­eral prizes along the way, in­clud­ing the Spirit of Asia award at the 2014 Tokyo In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

Sotho was born in Ph­nom Penh in 1973, just two years be­fore the com­mu­nist Kh­mer Rouge emp­tied the cap­i­tal of peo­ple as part of their dystopian vi­sion for a class­less, agrar­ian-based so­ci­ety. And the Pol Pot era has – as for many Cam­bo­di­ans – cast some­thing of a shadow over Sotho’s life.

While not deal­ing di­rectly with the pe­riod in her films, it has never been far from the nar­ra­tive. And al­though she be­lieves it is im­por­tant to have con­ver­sa­tions about that time – both in art and in life – she is adamant that it should not serve to de­fine a coun­try that rose from the great Angkor Em­pire, which at its height stretched across much of mod­ern day Thai­land, Laos and south­ern Viet­nam.

“A lot of Cam­bo­di­ans, es­pe­cially the younger generation, they do not pay much at­ten­tion to the his­tory of their own coun­try, of their own fam­ily. And I think if we don’t pay at­ten­tion to our own his­tory, the dan­ger is that we can lose our iden­tity be­cause we don’t know who we were and where we came from.

“I don’t think we should only fo­cus on the Kh­mer Rouge his­tory; I think we should also look be­yond the Kh­mer Rouge his­tory as well,” she added. “There were many cen­turies of glo­ri­ous time. We should just use the Kh­mer Rouge, the dark time, to make us even stronger – to rise above it.”

Which is ex­actly what Sotho is do­ing.

Ev­ery Cam­bo­dian has more or less the same scars that my fam­ily has and ex­pe­ri­ences we are strug­gling to get through”

Full of grace: Ku­likar Sotho pic­tured in the grounds of Ph­nom Penh's iconic Raf­fles Ho­tel Le Royal

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