Made in the shade

Sok Visal returned to his native Cambodia from France 25 years ago to make art and reclaim his roots. He now helms a film and music collective that is leading a creative revival

Native son: Sok Visal built a successful commercial creative firm from the ground up, but his real passion is making films and producing hip-hop groups

Words by Tom O’Connell Photography by Sam Jam

Cambodian audiences are still warming to the moviegoing experience just a few years after Phnom Penh got its first modern cineplex, in 2012. The country’s vibrant filmmaking scene was cut short by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the first Cambodian film would be made post-liberation. The old theatres that were packed with fans in the 1960s and 1970s had been turned into restaurants, shops and massage parlours. When the cinema returned, moviegoers talked openly on their cellphones and shouted at the screen.

Sok Visal found it to be an uncouth experience that made him cringe. But things have improved since then, and he’s hoping his latest film, a nostalgic tour of contemporary Cambodian history featuring the music of one of the Kingdom’s most famous singers, fills seats when it debuts in March.

The Golden Voice of Cambodia was silenced in 1976. The details of Sinn Sisamouth’s death after the Khmer Rouge took over the country are murky, but his life on stages and in recording studios is still celebrated. He is thought to have written hundreds, possibly thousands, of songs before his death at 41, having ridden a wave of popular rock and soul sounds that crashed horrifically in the wanton violence and repression of the country’s dark years under the ultra-Maoist regime.

Sisamouth’s most famous tune, the iconic “Champa Battambang”, carries the emotional drama throughout Sok Visal’s third feature, In the Life of Music. The film, which debuts this year at the Cambodia International Film Festival, tells the story of generation after generation of a family as it weathers the joys and sorrows of life in the Kingdom before, during and after the Pol Pot era.

Young musicians and other creatives streamed in and out of Sok Visal’s busy offices in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district when Discover visited him. The amiable, soft-spoken 48-year-old pointed out a musicians’ dorm, a film editing suite and the studio for his music label, KlapYaHandz, as we climbed the stairs to his office at the top of the four-storey building. It’s here that Visal directs his commercial video business, which pays the bills – and where he plots moves for the ten artists currently signed to KlapYaHandz and where he plans the feature films that are his passion.

Art matters: Sok Visal documents his country’s complicated history and culture through music and film while mentoring the next generation of Cambodian artists

Sok Visal has picked up where his filmmaking and music industry forebears of the golden era of the Cambodian arts left off in 1975. Cambodian arts and culture are still recovering from that era, said Visal, a time when the nation’s intellectuals, artists, architects, engineers, doctors, teachers, musicians, actors and filmmakers – the elite city dwellers, as opposed to the “pure” peasant class in the countryside – were killed by the paranoid communist regime.

“It was cut off by the Khmer Rouge,” he said of the rich sounds being made by innovative Khmer musicians from the 1960s into the 1970s who were inspired by US popular music. “We were about to have a psychedelic scene. It started but never managed to take off.” Visal grew up listening to American hip-hop and soul, whose influences and samples can be heard in the music he produces today.

Sok Visal was four years old in 1975 when his father, a soldier fighting the Khmer Rouge for the US-backed Lon Nol government, took the family to the Thai border, which they crossed after the country fell.

“At some point in 1975, he saw that we had no chance to push them back, so he alerted everybody in his family but nobody wanted to leave, nobody wanted to move and nobody really believed or knew what was going on,” he said.

When Cambodia fell, his family left Thailand for France, where they lived in a housing project in a Paris suburb. Visal was sent to live with family in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US, after he got in trouble for graffiti in 1989. By the time he returned to France in 1993, his family was preparing to repatriate to Cambodia in time for its UN-led first free elections. Visal, tired of working odd jobs and partying in the Paris suburbs, soon followed his family back to Cambodia, and has been in Phnom Penh for the past 25 years.

“It’s about the trauma and the monster that lives within the Cambodian people behind that smile”

“My life wasn’t going anywhere, and as an artist, I knew I didn’t want to be working in an office or as a security guard all my life,” he said. “The travel to America gave me the taste of exploring and travelling, so I said fuck it, I’m going to go to Cambodia and see what’s up.”

Visal was a creative director for ad agencies before he went out on his own and launched 802AD Films in 2009 (its name is a nod to the beginning of the Khmer Empire era). On the commercial end, he’s made TV and web commercials for brands like ANZ bank, Tiger beer, Metfone, Cellcard, Wing and Yamaha. He also makes music videos and TV shows, but the star of 802AD is his feature film work. His first two movies were the crime comedies Gems on the Run and Poppy Goes to Hollywood. His third, In the Life of Music, was co-directed with Khmer-American Caylee So and has already been screened at film festivals around the world ahead of its March 2018 premiere at the Cambodia International Film Festival. The pair took home the Best Director award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May.

Visal’s been working on his fourth feature, the horror thriller In the Shade, for 12 years. He’s in the funding process, and hopes to start rolling soon. It’s the “deeply personal story” of a Khmer-American man in his thirties whose dying father gives him a package to deliver to the father’s brother in Phnom Penh. He arrives to a mystery as he attempts to track down his uncle, a former Khmer Rouge officer who’s been keeping his daughter in a closet for years. It was inspired by the films he loved growing up by directors like Ridley Scott, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. The plot so far has shades of the surprise endings of the films of M. Night Shyamalan, though Visal would not hint at any unexpected twist at the end.

“It’s really a story about Cambodia, the trauma of Cambodia and what the Khmer Rouge and other people have done to this country, the French colonists, the US B-52s,” said Visal, referring to the US planes that carried out the illegal bombing campaign of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. “It’s about the trauma and the monster that lives within the Cambodian people behind that smile that every Cambodian has.”

Visal then opened up about the primal fear every Khmer person carries through life based on the three years, eight months and 20 days in the 1970s when the country turned on itself. Like all his films, In the Shade explores contemporary Cambodian history and social issues.

“There’s something that’s been put in all of us since the Khmer Rouge that could wake up and grow anytime to come back and destroy us… If we are able to do this,” said Visal, “we probably are able to do it again if we don’t watch out. The film tackles this and gives my perspective on the problem and a possible solution to keep the monster locked inside.”

Discover had just one more question for the director. What advice does he have for visitors to the Kingdom of Wonder?

“Visiting a country fully also means trying to learn the culture, meeting the real people of this country, go to places where real people go,” he said. “Everybody goes to Angkor Wat and gets their selfie and learns nothing of Cambodia. For me, it’s respect and getting rid of all this baggage from the West or wherever you come from. Try to get new baggage, learn new things…. It’s about learning from each other, learning to experience the country the right way, not as a tourist.”

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