Kilong Ung was just a teenager when the Khmer Rouge overtook his hometown of Battambang in Cambodia.
Under the new regime, he and his seven sisters, along with their parents, were forced into concentration camps, where they worked 13 hours a day on a daily ration of two tiny bowls of rice porridge and whatever rats they could catch.
His mother, father and youngest sister would become part of the estimated 2 million Cambodians who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. During its reign, the government burned books, buried films and murdered artists, teachers, religious figures and intellectuals in an effort to purge the nation of its culture.
Ung’s story of surviving the so-called killing fields and the aftermath of trying to find closure in genocide is explored in a new documentary, “Risking Lights,” which will debut this weekend at the Art Theater as part of the Cambodia Town Film Festival. Now in its sixth year, CTFF has earned a reputation for daring programming that presents projects from independent Asian and Asian-American filmmakers not often supported by the mainstream.
“The film is about, what would you do after a tragedy [like the Khmer Rouge]?” says praCh Ly, co-founder and co-director of the Cambodia Town Film Festival. “How do you seek resolution? How do you seek closure?”
Ly, along with festival co-founder and co-director Caylee So, started CTFF to make sure that Cambodian and Cambodian-American narratives get the exposure they deserve on the big screen. Over two full days, this year’s festival will screen seven short films (including two music videos), four feature narratives (including a free screening of “The Joy Luck Club” on Sunday), three feature documentaries and a live one-woman show. Two of the movies will be screening for the first time in the U.S.
It’s a festival that exists as a direct response to the norms of Hollywood, which for decades has failed to include Asians on the big screen and continues to lack representation of the diversity of Asian and Asian-American experiences.
According to census data, the U.S. Asian population is the fastest growing racial group in the country. Between 2000 and 2015, people claiming roots from one of Asia’s 48 countries has nearly doubled, now accounting for about 7 percent of the total population. However, media representation has yet to catch up with these statistics. Only two of the top-100 grossing movies in 2016 cast Asian men (no women) in leading roles. More often, Asian actors are given stereotypical, one-dimensional side roles: the nerd, the martial arts master, or the thickly-accented source of comic relief.
This summer brought the issue of Asian representation in film back into the spotlight. “Crazy Rich Asians”—the first major studio film written by an Asian writer and featuring an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club”—opened last month and has spent all that time leading box office sales. It is widely considered the most successful romantic comedy in almost a decade.
Around the same time, Sony Pictures released “Searching,” with John Cho as the lead, telling the story of a Korean-American father dealing with the mysterious disappearance of his 16-year-old daughter. It was written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who is South Asian.
But Ly isn’t holding his breath that more big movie studios are going to start producing the kinds of films he wants to see made, particularly ones about Cambodian and Cambodian-American experiences.
“We can’t wait around,” Ly says. “We have to create our own platform and production companies and not just wait around for the big ones to come and recognize us. … We don’t wanna be just sidekicks, we wanna be leads. We don’t wanna be costars, we have stories to tell—so let us tell our stories.”
Born in Cambodia at the tail end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Ly fled to the U.S. as a young boy with his family. Growing up in Long Beach—home to the largest Cambodian population in the U.S.—he started rapping, re-telling his parents’ stories of the genocide through hip hop. Using a karaoke machine and tape deck in his parents’ garage, he handmade 1,000 copies of his CD and passed it around to his friends. Through word of mouth and bootlegging, it unexpectedly became a top-selling album in Cambodia.
When Ly began composing film scores for friends, he found himself thrust into the world of filmmaking. He was still touring as a rapper, and as he traveled across the states, he noticed the lack of platforms for minority independent films, particularly for Cambodian filmmakers. So when he discovered filmmaker Caylee So’s feature film “Paulina”—which explores the prevalence of gambling addiction within the Cambodian community—the two partnered with the goal of showcasing nuanced and diverse stories of their people through a film festival.
“[Long Beach] is very diverse, and we want to show that diversity in our festival,” Ly says. “But we highlight Cambodian artists and Cambodian filmmakers, not just because of our background but [because of] what happened to us during the killing fields. Our musicians and artists, they were all killed in the war. For me, this is personal. We’re building it from ground zero.”
From its first year in 2013, CTFF was truly a grassroots effort. Instead of making cold calls to reach out to Cambodian organizations around the country, the duo planned a mini-tour, complete with a screening of “Paulina” and a 30-minute rap performance by Ly. They drove from Long Beach to Seattle, then toured from Virginia to New York. They spread the word about their new film festival and met a number of people who were just as excited as they were. Their opening film was a Sundance-award-winning documentary “A River Changes Course.” It was a full house.
“It just built on from there,” Ly says.
Although it wasn’t the original intention, the festival continues to grow and attract attention from major Hollywood names. In its second year, actor/director Matt Dillon attended for a screening of his drama film “City of Ghosts” and did a Q&A with the audience. And last year, the festival hosted Angelina Jolie for the screening of her film “First They Killed My Father,” a movie about surviving the Khmer Rouge based on a memoir of the same name. Loung Ung, the author of the memoir, accompanied Jolie on the Art Theater stage as well as Rithy Panh, the Oscar-nominated Cambodian filmmaker who produced the movie.
“We had the holy trinity for the film to represent in our festival,” Ly says. “And that was the last time they were promoting that film together, so it ended here at home—in Cambodia Town.”
This year’s festival lineup is its most eclectic yet. In addition to accepting short films for the first time, the selection committee also opened up the festival to domestic and international films of all kinds, Cambodia-related or not. The festival is also waiving the entrance ticket fees for all seniors ages 55 and above. The “Joy Luck Club” screening on Sunday night is free to all.
Ly hopes these efforts let people know the festival is not only for Cambodian audiences. Each film they select has universal themes about the human condition that resonate with anyone regardless of their cultural background. He says he hopes that by educating people about the tragedies and stories of different cultures, it will help bring people together.
Ly and So even recently wrapped up their own film, called “In the Life of Music,” which chronicles three generations revolving around a well-known Cambodian love song “Champa Battambang.” But they won’t be screening it until next year’s CTFF.
“We need Asian representation everywhere, not just in movies but in books, in music, in everything,” Ly says. “Why should we be less or more than anybody else? We should be equal. We’re capable. We have a lot of beautiful, and not just tragic, stories to be told.”
Cambodia Town Film Festival screenings begin at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 and run all day Sunday, Sept. 16. For more information, visit cambodiatownfilmfestival.com or view the full lineup of films.
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