Sunflower Film Organization (SFO) is an independent collective of mostly volunteers working across Cambodia to gather young Cambodians and train them on how to use film as a tool for empowerment and freedom of expression. The popular Chaktomuk Short Film Festival, which SFO has been running since 2012, has served as a go-to bridge and platform for talented socially engaged filmmakers across the region.
As part of the ongoing series highlighting the newest Video for Change Network members, I spoke with Sithen, SFO’s director, to learn more about their work and what to expect from the collective.
Egbert: How are things with you and with Sunflower in general?
Sithen: We’re doing okay despite the lockdown and slowdown! I’ve found it challenging to motivate my team to work on our current projects since the latest COVID-19 wave in late February. Still, on the bright side, I believe the situation will pass soon. We have been forced to modify some of our activities to online formats in order to achieve our expected outcomes and goals.
Egbert: Good to hear you’re still positive under the circumstances. In general, how would you say Sunflower practices Video for Change?
Sithen: Sunflower used to focus mainly on narrative content or fiction, but since 2019, we have been fortunate to start Let’s Document Cambodia, an Internews-funded project that leverages our film training experience [with] documentaries.
Our main theme in this project is freedom of expression and access to information. In film workshops, we collaborate with Cambodian youths to create short documentaries. In one week, experienced filmmakers teach screenplay writing, shooting, and editing. After which, participants have a few days to shoot and edit. It is very intense and it pushes participating youths out of their comfort zone while adding new layers to the existing skills of these young people.
This year, the beneficiaries are indigenous people. Videos are still in production, as we have just conducted our first camp in Ratanakiri in mid-February 2021. One group of indigenous youth made a film about childhood marriages and the fact [that] many girls in their community have children before reaching adult age. Another film is on access to education and contrasts the lives of two girls, one obtaining a university degree and getting a job at a telecommunications company, while the other girl marries young and remains relatively poor.
Krueng community members are making a film that depicts how a Kong Nyee, a unique gong-like instrument that is deeply embedded in their culture, is used in all phases of their life. The films discussed how the community works to preserve this instrument.
Egbert: Amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished version of these videos. What are some of the challenges that Sunflower faces in its work?
Sithen: A continuous challenge is making sure we sustain our activities. I’m still looking for the right leaders to succeed me, to [ensure] that new generations of filmmakers and changemakers can benefit from SFO. Additionally, our limited reach to international networks reduces our chances to secure larger funds that will allow us to make long-term plans. We hope our Video4Change Network membership can aid in SFO becoming more visible outside of Cambodia.
Egbert: Indeed. I hope more international audiences will start to recognise and appreciate the great work SFO has been doing for years and years in Cambodia. We haven’t touched upon the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival that you also organise. Has it managed to survive the pandemic?
Sithen: It’s doing painstakingly well. Not only is the organising team new to our film collective, but the pandemic has radically switched our way of doing things. I personally had to learn to adapt to virtual work, which I never preferred, as it lacks a personal touch. On the other hand, as the festival hits its 10th edition, we’ve got enough in store to make it right for such a meaningful anniversary.
Hosting online events was really something new. We have more than 2000+ viewers for our online content. Yet, during livestreams of films where we tried hosting Q&A sessions with filmmakers afterwards, results were not as expected. It will take time for us to really develop this better. We have three more screenings planned, this time in the evening. We hope that these live stream sessions will attract filmmakers to send in their films, while also promoting the Chaktomuk festival itself.
It is all new ground for us. At the moment I’m trying to listen to my younger staff, and they’re saying online is now the trend, so we should try this. Another thing we are thinking about is showcasing short films from previous festival editions for certain periods of time, something we’ll continue doing until June 2021.
Egbert: What can we expect to come out of Cambodia in the next few years?
Sithen: Ah, Cambodia will remain Cambodia! Well, with SFO and Chaktomuk Short Film Festival moving ahead, I believe the Cambodian film landscape will never be the same again. Each year a new batch of 30 filmmakers is trained through our Docu FilmCamp and our other workshops. The more batches we train, the larger the pool is for potential filmmakers that can impact Cambodian society and communities.
Our country has countless stories to tell the world, and we have yet to reach the capacity needed for filmmakers to start sharing them. Cambodia has no film school, so we have to pass it down hands-on, and that is exactly what Sunflower does. Filmmaking is the most powerful storytelling technique. Through films, we learn so much about our society and about ourselves. By working with the indigenous communities, I learned so much about their reality and it makes me question their way of life. The more films we make, the more critical we become and the better we are equipped for the future. In these times, Cambodia needs more art, because it adds meaning when so many are deprived of meaning and social interaction.
In five years, we hope to launch Sunflower Film Academy, where we will offer a more standard curriculum and can train multiple batches of 30 filmmakers a year. An academy would also be able to attract overseas experience and professionals. Sunflower has been supporting Cambodian filmmakers for 11 years, so now is the time for us to step up our game.
Egbert Wits is the Learning Manager of EngageMedia’s Video for Change programs.
Learn more about what the newest members of the Video4Change Network are up to through our new member spotlight series. Check out the works of Biru Terong Initiative and Refugee Law Project, with more features in store in the coming months.