Mao Ayuth, Filmmaker Who Survived the Khmer Rouge, Dies at 76

Mao Ayuth, one of the few Cambodian filmmakers who survived the Khmer Rouge era, when most of the artists and intellectuals were killed, and who then rose to become Secretary of State in the Ministry of Information, died on April 15 in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. He was 76 years old.

Phos Sovann, a ministry spokesman, said the cause was complications from Covid-19.

Mr. Mao Ayuth, who was also a writer, poet, and screenwriter, began his film career in the 1960s and early 70s when the golden age of Cambodian cinema became known. Filmmaking flourished under the country’s then leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, an avid filmmaker who made his own films.

Mr. Mao Ayuth’s first film was one of the last films to hit the silver screen before the fanatical communist Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and tried to eradicate all aspects of culture including education, art and religion.

The film “Beth Phnek Hek Troung” (“Close my eyes, open my heart”) was shot with a 16 mm camera, which had to be opened by hand between shots. Very popular at the time, it tells the story of a Cambodian businessman living in France who returns home after the death of his twin brother. Then he falls in love with his brother’s widow, who ultimately gives in to his progress.

Only one copy of the film was made, so that it had to be brought from theater to theater by messenger. The run only lasted a few weeks. The Khmer Rouge forces were approaching Phnom Penh – according to some reports, artillery could be heard in the theaters – and when the city fell on April 17, 1975, that single copy was lost.

In nearly four years when more than 1.7 million people were massacred, Mr. Mao Ayuth survived by hiding his background as an artist and posing as a wedding photographer instead.

He told his story in an interview in 2011 with Tilman Baumgärtel, journalist and professor of media theory at the Mainz University of Applied Sciences, who also taught for a time at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

After a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Mr. Mao Ayuth returned to his craft, but until then Phnom Penh was a ghost town. There were no cinemas and no funding for film equipment.

It would be about another decade before his second film was shown in 1988. The film “Chet Chong Cham” (“I want to remember”), a story of survival in the past decades of civil war and ruin, is told in flashbacks within flashbacks. It also proved popular with people hungry to see scenes from their recent past.

Updated

April 21, 2021, 8:58 p.m. ET

The Cambodian film industry then experienced perhaps the fastest growth and the fastest decline in the world. At its peak, the industry produced 167 films in 1990; In 1994 the number dropped to just 31.

One reason was competition from more conspicuous foreign films; Another was the advent of television in Cambodia. The main cause, however, was film piracy. Once a film was shown, it was pirated and taken home on discs. The lack of strict copyright laws continues to weaken Cambodian cinema.

Mao Ayuth’s most popular film, Ne Sat Kror Per (The Crocodile) from 2005, was loosely based on his childhood memories of crocodile hunters and told the story of a hunt for the mythical crocodile king.

He was born on July 8, 1944 in Kampong Cham Province in the central lowlands. His father, Men Thoeung, was a township official. His mother was Tai Sing.

After participating in a screenwriting program in the early 1960s, Mr. Mao Ayuth worked for Cambodia’s first television station. He started out as a production assistant and rose to become news director.

A decade later, he went to France on a grant from the national television and radio agency. While on vacation in the Swiss Alps, he produced recordings with his hand-cranked camera that became part of “Beth Phnek Hek Troung”. The winter scenes of mountains, ski lifts and tourists in fur hats were a thrill for Cambodians who had never seen snow before.

He is survived by his widow So Samony; four daughters, Mao Bophany, Mao Moni Na, Mao Moni Neath and Mao Moni Roath; and a son, Mao Makara.

Mr. Mao Ayuth was appointed State Secretary in the Ministry of Information in 1993. He was also president of the Association of Television Broadcasters in Cambodia.

He was recently selected by Prime Minister Hun Sen to create a series of films about the life of Mr. Hun Sen as a poor village boy who rose to become one of the longest-serving leaders in the world and has been in power for more than three decades.

Mr. Mao Ayuth was still working on the series when he died and considered it a special privilege.

“If it’s his honor, we’ll have to make an effort,” he told reporters in January. “It is a great honor that the top leader has trusted us. That is why we have to meet our obligations to fulfill his trust.”

Sun Narin reported from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.