Cambodian filmmaker completes International Writing Program residency
Friday, November 6, 2015

Polen Ly almost became a doctor.

But the up-and-coming Cambodian screenwriter and filmmaker knew he would never be as passionate about medicine as he was about making movies.

Ly, 26, was one of 34 writers who took part in a fall residency in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. He and the others spent nearly three months attending classes, interacting with the Iowa City community, and working on their own projects. Ly says his time in Iowa was artistically energizing and that the change of scenery gave him new ideas for films.

"I've been working on several short films during my stay here," he says. "I completed one in late October and I've also been working on a screenplay for a feature-length film."

Ly was raised in the countryside of Kandal Province, about 40 miles from Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Ly moved to Phnom Penh to pursue a career as a doctor and began an eight-year medical program at the University of Health Sciences. However, city life expanded Ly's horizons and he found himself drawn to the visual arts. He became interested in the growing Cambodian film scene, as well as international films, and soon spent most of his free time in front of a screen.

"Learning English and French expanded the range of movies I could watch and enjoy," he says. "Languages can give you important access to other worlds." (While he insists he doesn't have a favorite film or director, he does cite the French film Amelie as being an early inspiration.)

Five years into his studies, Ly left medical school to pursue a career as a filmmaker.

"I wasn't very passionate about medical school," he says. "But it was still scary to leave it behind because there isn't an established path to follow for filmmaking, especially in Cambodia where there are no film schools. Back in the civil war, a lot of the intellectuals and artists were killed."

The effects of the Cambodian Civil War are still felt in the country today. The war, fought from 1967 to 1975, concluded with the communist Khmer Rouge assuming political control over the country. Then, from 1975 to 1979, they orchestrated the Cambodian Genocide, in which an estimated 2 million people—almost one-quarter of the population—were murdered for political, religious, and ethnic reasons. The targeting of intellectuals in particular was a setback to many of Cambodia's institutions, including the arts, which are still regaining their footing.

 Ly, who had little in the way of formal instruction in filmmaking, instead learned through the process of trial and error.

"I started out just making videos and uploading them to my YouTube channel," he says.

Despite these challenges, in just three years Ly made nine short films, including Red Ink and Colourful Knots, which focuses on the challenges faced by a girl who has cancer and how she changes the lives of those around her. Colourful Knots won first prize at the 2015 Tropfest SEA film festival in Malaysia, earning Ly $12,000 cash and an industry-immersion trip to Los Angeles. His 2012 documentary, Passage of Blooms, won the 2012 Science Film Festival in Bangkok, Thailand.

The IWP's fall residency concludes Nov. 10, and the participating writers depart Iowa City for their respective homes. For Ly, the IWP gave him the opportunity to not only have a more long-term experience of life in America but also to learn from 33 peers who brought their unique experiences and cultures to the program.

"I loved Iowa City," he says. "The city is so authentic and natural. I'll be leaving with a lot of new ideas."