Monday, April 30, 2007

CamKids : SCC

CamKids is a newly-launched charity, based in the UK. Mark Purser is the Chairman of CamKids, or its full title, The Cambodian Children’s Charity. Mark and his wife are parents of a 5 year old girl, who they adopted from Cambodia two years ago and, together with a couple of other Cambodian adoptive families and a number of supporters, they decided to form the charity last year. Its official launch took place in London last month. They have been supporting children’s projects in Cambodia for a number of years and decided to formalise their work and to increase their activities. CamKids mainly support educational and medical projects, as well as relief work, in rural areas in Cambodia. Last year, they built a small medical centre at a rural orphanage in the village of Kais, in Kompong Speu province, for use by the children and the local community. They also pay for a doctor to attend regularly, as well as the medicines, vaccines and other supplies. At the moment, they're building a kitchen and canteen at the same orphanage and are working on plans for the construction and support of two rural schools, including teacher training, as well as increasing their dental and medical programs. They are non-political and non-religious and they also try to support local businesses and suppliers when carrying out their projects. You can find out more about this fledgling charity at their website and on their blog.
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Regular readers of this blog will know that I've been a supporter of another UK-based charity, Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC) for a long time now. SCC do a great job in supporting six schools in Siem Reap province with 2000+ pupils in attendance. Their schools provide free education for children from the ages of 4-12 years and also assist the more academically-inclined children to attend the government's secondary school program beyond the age of 12. You'll recall that the popular BBC tv series Casualty were in Cambodia last year and one of its stars, Cathy Shipton, aka Duffy, is also a supporter of SCC and during her stay she met teachers and pupils of their school at Lolei. Cathy also encouraged SCC to apply to the BBC Lifeline Appeal. Read more about SCC here.
Here's a look at Cathy's Cambodia Diary (courtesy of the BBC website):
"I'm asked to go to Cambodia to film a double episode of Casualty to celebrate the 20th anniversary. After a tearful goodbye with my daughter Tallulah, I'm reunited with the motley cast and crew at Heathrow, including Derek Thompson, who I've known for 20 years, Patrick Lau, the director and Jane Hudson, the producer, who I've only recently met. Derek greets my story partner John Bowie, "Hello - you're a hero of mine." John looks shy - good the boys will get on. Stepping off the plane at Phnom Pehn is like walking into a sauna. We all reach for water which becomes a permanent fixture for three weeks. We're thrown into the melee of morning rush-hour traffic. There's no lane discipline and everyone's out for themselves. There are whole families on motorbikes and a heavily pregnant woman riding side-saddle on a scooter, holding a drip up.
Make-up at 5am, shooting in 100 degrees and smothered in insect repellent. Filming in the remote villages is interrupted either by a noisy dogfight or a sudden welcome downpour which has us huddled under umbrellas watching the children laugh and splash in puddles. Everywhere we go we are met with smiles and nothing is too much trouble. The work is hard and the days are long especially for the crew, but there is something about these people that lifts our spirits.
On my days off, I visit two projects dear to my heart. Schools set up by an English Charity, Schools for Children of Cambodia and The Sunrise Childrens Village, an orphanage set up 20 years ago. They show me their classrooms and work and give me a wondrous display of Khmer National Dance. 50% of the population are under 20 - it is great to see so many young people being given hope and a future after such recent devastation in their country.
It's my last day and we're filming in the Central Market - a vast and gorgeous 1930s construction. Life teems around us as we film. I have to argue with Charlie - this causes much amusement and we are soon playing to a huge crowd. Cambodians don't believe in showing emotion. At "cut" we muck around in a fake punch-up - they love it and give us a huge ovation. Cambodia is a beautiful country with gracious, dignified people. I have made many good friends and we keep in touch with email. I hope to get back to teach at one of the schools as a volunteer when my daughter is older. I have only begun to scratch the surface but Cambodia is truly under my skin."

The inspiring story of Sichan Siv

In the turbulent 70s, the hope for many Cambodians was to exchange the fear and fighting of their own country for a new life elsewhere, and for the majority their target country was America. For Sichan Siv this dream became a reality and his inspiring story, to be called Golden Bones, will be published in March 2008 by Harper Collins. Siv not only achieved his dream, he took it to a remarkable level by becoming a White House appointee and for five years he served as as a United States' Ambassador to the United Nations before stepping down last year.

As the only one of sixteen family members to survive the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Siv escaped the clutches of the Khmer Rouge and crossed the border, only to be jailed by the Thai authorities. His former employers at CARE petitioned successfully for him to be relocated to America and he arrived in Connecticut in June 1976. Later he moved to Manhattan where he drove a cab and counseled refugees. Holder of an undergraduate degree from the University of Phnom Penh, he entered Columbia University's international affairs program, earning a master's degree in degree in 1981, and became a US citizen the following year. From 1989 to 1993, he served President George Bush at the White House as deputy assistant for public liaison and at the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs. After a successful period in private business, in 2001 the current US President, George W Bush appointed him as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Read more here.

Chea Samy - her classical dance legacy

Chea Samy is credited with reviving Khmer classical dance after the Khmer Rouge had decimated Cambodia's dance elite in the late 70s. When she returned to Phnom Penh in April 1979, the Ministry of Culture arranged for her to travel throughout the country to search for surviving teachers and young, talented dancers. She was sixty years old and had to start from scratch in order to resurrect her country's premier art-form. Today, classical dance in Cambodia is thriving both at home and abroad, thanks to her legacy.

Chea Samy began studying classical dance at the age of six in 1925, as a palace dancer for King Sisowath Monivong. By the time she was thirty, she had become a teacher of the royal ballet troupe. In 1975, she was herded out of the capital to a farm in Kompong Thom province, where she was put to work collecting manure for fertilizer, masking her true identity, claiming she was a market vendor. At the time, she was unaware that by an incredible quirk of fate, her husband's younger brother, Saloth Sar, was none other than Pol Pot, leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that oversaw the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians. Having played a pivotal role in resuscitating her beloved classical dance, Chea Samy died in June 1994 at the age of seventy-five. [photo: copyright John Spragens Jr]

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A snapshot of Cambodia in 1990

I have just found an excellent snapshot of life in Cambodia in 1990 via the on-line Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, published in July of that year. It contains more than 20 articles from experts such as David Chandler and Michael Vickery and across a diverse range of topics and issues. It'll give you hours of reading and insight into Cambodia in 1990. Click here. I've re-produced one of the articles below, on the 1,001 uses for a Krama.

The Krama: A Cambodian Patchwork
By Francois Grunewald [Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.]

From near and far, the kramas grace the Cambodian people with their own special character. The humble Khmer garment, a scarf made up of thousands of tiny squares, resembles Khmers' own history: it is a patchwork of contrasting hues - dark and light, sad and joyous.
After living and working for years with Khmers, one cannot help but have seen a thousand and one morsels of this material on a thousand and one different occasions. Some kramas - black and white - bespeak tragedy. Others, made of bright silks, are merrily worn to pagoda festivals. There are a plethora of kramas that reflect the many events that make up Cambodian life.
There are kramas soaked by the sweat of peasants, who mop their brows as they carry out their harsh work in the fields... plowing, harrowing, harvesting. Their kramas also know the sweat born of long and terrible days of work under the yoke of the Khmer Rouge... cutting the forest, digging canals, building dams.
There are the kramas that color the marketplace. Worn in a thousand and one different ways, these lend elegance to the silhouettes of women waiting for the ferry that will carry them from Prek Kdam to Kompong Cham.
Kramas are gently when transformed into hammocks and suspended between two sugar palms, protecting infants from the wet rice fields while their mothers, doubled over, cultivate the paddies. Kramas can be tender, too, when a yey (grandmother), gums reddened by bethel, uses one to dry the cheeks of a child in tears.
Kramas are close to pain when they are used to cinch a leg torn off by one of thousands of land mines that will, for years to come, continue to kill and cripple. And, too, kramas become stretchers when several, tied together and attached to long bamboo poles, are used to carry the wounded, a sick person, or a woman in labor.
There are terrifying kramas, worn by the sinister silhouettes of kramaphibal and yothear (loyalists and soldiers) of Pol Pot.
Then there are the horrifying kramas, found in tatters and mixed with human remains in the mass graves strewn throughout the country.
Kramas of heroes: the quasi-customary piece of uniform of the men that take part in the conflicts between the superpowers and small regional hegemonies. Soldiers of Sihanouk, Hun Sen, Son San, or even Khleu Samphan: how you resemble each other, draped in your bivouac kramas, turbanned in these scarves of tiny squares as you march in the season's dust, or when, to bathe in the river by the soft tropical light of dusk, you drape you drape your krama modestly around your hips.
Kramas of humiliation are scattered among the long lines of refugees waiting, often in shame and despair, and now with all too frequent resignation, for their ration of international aid. Some have been in exile for nigh on 10 years... How many children born in these camps are carried in a krama noosed about their mothers' shoulders? How many have only known the rice cooked from a plastic sack their mother has received as a ration...?
Knapsack kramas contain everything for the voyage to the work areas that stretch from K.5 to the Khmer Thai border. Many return trembling from these forests (think with guerrillas and Pol Pot soldiers) - sick with tropical fevers, clutching their kramas about them for warmth.
Kramas become parasols when they are stretched between the masts of thousands of wagons during the great seasonal migrations that irrigate whole villages at the start of the dry season. Their shade protects Khmers as they travel toward the miraculous fishing shores of the Tonlè Sap at the mouth of the Oudong, and Prek Phnow - upriver from Phnom Penh.
During the great purges of 1978, deportees from the eastern part of the country were marked as traitors by green and blue kramas. These kramas created fear among and about those they designated as secret agents, as enemies to be spied upon and persecuted without mercy. Kramas of fear, kramas of the yellow star.
Wrapped around hips, and in between legs, kramas are a pair of makeshift shorts for a round of volleyball until, with a particularly vigorous swipe at the ball, the krama will fall, lifting waves of laughter and jokes from the audience. The matron of the marketplace in O'Russey extracts her worn riels from the krama that serves as her only purse. Her gesture is reminiscent of so many others - the slight, young refugee girl selling doughnuts in Khao-I-Dang... or the manageress of the small shop in the Site Two refugee camp, a little bamboo city that is the second Khmer city after Phnom Penh... A neak srae, a man of the rice fields, unknots his krama for a pinch of tobacco, which he will roll into a "Sangker" leaf, picked by the side of the road.
Some kramas are hoisted onto children's backs as schoolbags. Tied at all four corners, filled with a few crayons, a notebook, and some books, they are carried along the roads of Srok Kmer, parallel to the corridors of the refugee camps. On both sides of the border, there are only a few schools in bad condition; they are, nonetheless, greatly treasured - so great is their pupils' hunger to learn. Young girls carry their kramas gingerly, with the grace and modesty they are taught, while boys sport theirs in haste, slung over their shoulders to speed their progress toward the football field. Priests wear kramas, too, folded across their chests. Dressed in black pants and collarless white shirts, their figures and serene smiles dress the Cambodian landscape; they are a part of its active religious life, a part of the nation's spiritual joys and suffering.
Some kramas are used as handcuffs, tightened around a prisoner. Others share in hope, swaddling a still wet newborn. This article is dedicated to everyone who wears kramas.

Bosba - heading for stardom

There's no doubt that 10-year-old Bosba Panh, a coloratura soprano, is heading for stardom in Cambodia. She's mature well beyond her age, sings in several languages, plays guitar and leads her own group, La Compagnie BosbaPanh. She comes from a talented family - she's the niece of the famous film director Rithy Panh - and has travelled widely, including a visit to Everest base camp! Already a regular face on Khmer television, she released her first cd - Phnom Penh - last year, an album of songs that recall the happier times of the 1960s including compositions from Norodom Sihanouk. Her group are all teachers or students from the Royal University of Fine Arts, who play traditional songs in a contemporary style. Bosba was born in Thailand to a Laotian mother and a Cambodian father, Meng Heng Panh, who studied in France and worked as a journalist there during the Khmer Rouge period. You can listen to Bosba on her own website here.

Return to Year Zero (1989)

Return to Year Zero, produced in 1989, is the third of six David A Feingold documentary films I've been sent by DER Films, to celebrate their release on dvd for public consumption. Producer Feingold and director Shari Robertson formed a documentary partnership that focused on key issues in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, and this 42-minute film highlights the dilemma being faced by the Cambodian people in 1989 as the occupying Vietnamese troops withdraw leaving the real possibility of a return to power by the murderous Khmer Rouge, in a potential regression back to Year Zero.
We see life in several of the Thai-Cambodian border refugee camps including Site 8, Borai, Sok Sann and Ta Luan, where the coalition forces, of which the Khmer Rouge outnumber the other parties by a considerable margin, are waiting for the Vietnamese withdrawal before taking on the PRK, either by force or by the ballot-box. The PRK, officially recognised by just Vietnam and the Soviet bloc, will be ripe for the picking by the battle-hardened Khmer Rouge army and we hear interviews with citizens and defectors that don't bode well for the future. The camera team visit Battambang, Pursat, Kompong Speu and Kampot, interview a senior KR administrator, prime minister Hun Sen, royal dance teacher Chea Samy and others as they make it clear that "this time the world cannot claim it doesn't know the danger" posed by the Khmer Rouge.
You can see a clip from the dvd, and purchase it at the DER website here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cyclos - Kings of the Road

Cyclos may've been Kings of the Road in a bygone era but that title is seriously under threat in more modern times. The article below reminds me of the excellent book, titled Kings of the Road, published by Robert Joiner and Last Word Books last year. It provides a 'coffee-table' insight into the world of the cyclo in Phnom Penh, but its photos are rich in colour and life and proceeds from the book go towards the Cyclo Centre mentioned in the story.

Cambodia's cyclo drivers pedalling towards extinction - by Suy Se (AFP)
Increasingly lost amid a sea of cars and scooters known as motor-taxies, these symbols of perhaps a more genteel era are struggling to remain relevant as Phnom Penh leaps towards modernity. But that struggle appears to be a losing one, as cyclos - pedal-driven rickshaws that were ubiquitous across what was once French Indochina - fall out of favour and their drivers turn in greater numbers to more lucrative work. "Modern things are coming, so out-of-date things like the cyclo will be gone," complains Khat Soeun, a wiry 43-year-old, as he squats next to his cyclo, bolting a leafspring to his broken vehicle. On the best days Khat Soeun can make two US dollars - half what he says he took home only a few years ago.
More often, though, he comes home with less after hours of grinding through the city's streets for just a few cents a ride. "I cannot make as much money now as I did in the past because there are so many motorcycles and tuk-tuks," he says, referring to the large motor-driven carts that first appeared a few years ago and have begun to dominate public transport. "We can't compete with them - they are machines and go faster," he adds. "Many drivers have changed from pedalling cyclos to driving motor-taxies instead." Roughly 2,500 cyclos plied the streets of Phnom Penh in 2004, according to a survey conducted by the Cyclo Centre, which opened in 1999 to help drivers cope with their changing world by providing English lessons, healthcare information, free haircuts and laundry facilities.
That figure was down from 10,000 reported more than a decade ago. "But nowadays there are only some 800 to 900 cyclo drivers pedalling the streets," says Im Sambath, the centre's project director. "We are really worried about the future of cyclos," he tells AFP. First introduced to Cambodia in 1936, the cyclo soon became a iconic part of Phnom Penh's city-scape. They still have a small, loyal following of mostly elderly customers who are put off by the sometimes hair-raising driving of motor-taxi drivers, known locally as "motodops". Cyclos also remain popular with foreigners seeking a slow turn around the capital's tourist spots, but the drivers remain among the poorest city residents. "It's my family's rice bowl, what I can make allows us to survive, but just day-to-day," Khat Soeun says.
In recent years the Cyclo Centre has tried to re-ignite the love affair with cyclos, advertising them to tourists as cheap, environmentally-friendly transport and organising fund-raising "rallies" from Phnom Penh to distant provincial capitals. "Our main target is to help the poor drivers to make a better living - give them better information about health, urge them to quit smoking or inform them about issues like domestic violence," Im Sambath says. The centre also offers drivers a rent-to-own plan that allows them to acquire their own second-hand cyclo for roughly 50 dollars after leasing it for about six months. Drivers are otherwise forced to pay 50 cents a day to rent their cyclos from other operators, or borrow the 120 dollars it costs to buy a new one. Cyclos "help poor and illiterate people feed their families," Im Sambath says, adding: "The cyclo is very important to us - it's part of our culture."
But the number of cyclos on the road is still "decreasing every day," says 41-year-old driver Va Thorn, a regular at the centre for three years who frequently uses his welding talents to fix broken cyclos for other drivers at discounted prices. "The cyclo is really under threat, I'm afraid they'll disappear from Cambodia," he warns. But better roads and a middle-class preference for motor vehicles has perhaps made their disappearance inevitable, says Chuch Phoeurn, a secretary of state with the Ministry of Culture. "Cyclos are disappearing because society is changing," he says, adding: "When people have easier ways to get around, they'll abandon cyclos."
  • Find out more about the Cyclo Centre here.

Sacrava self portrait

Above is a self-portrait of Bun Heang Ung, drawn to celebrate his forthcoming 55th birthday. Any regular readers of my blog will know how much I like the work of this extremely talented cartoonist and animator who used to work for the Far Eastern Economic Review for many years. Now living and working in Australia, Bun included many of his own drawings in his book, The Murderous Revolution - his real-life struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge regime - which came out in 1985. His own website, Sacrava Toons, displays a wealth of his work, which is regularly critical of the political situation back in his home country. Also have a look at my own webpage on Bun here. And his animated banner representing yours truly riding a moped through Cambodia, can be found at the beginning of my website.
(Self-portrait: reproduced with kind permission)

Press Release - New Cambodia Guidebook

- will be one of eight brand new guidebooks launched in the spring of 2008 by ThingsAsian Press, based on the successful formula trail-blazed by To Asia With Love: A Connoisseurs’ Guide to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand & Vietnam. link

Managing editor Kim Fay says; “Unlike standard guidebooks, TAWL does not provide comprehensive listings of hotel addresses, train schedules, etc. Instead, it contains subjective stories intended to spark your interest in unique destinations and experiences, and provide information on how you can visit those destinations and enjoy those experiences during your travels. TAWL works in many ways, as a supplement to your practical guidebook, great armchair reading, and a reliable gift for nomadic friends.”

Adopting that same formula, the first eight books of the series will be Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Japan, Shanghai and New Delhi. Future destinations will include Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Taiwan, Tibet, China, Bhutan and India.

The editor of To Cambodia With Love will be…me! For the last few months, I’ve been badgering a lot of people, all of whom live in or have travelled extensively throughout – and are all united in their love of – Cambodia. My desire is to produce a guidebook that reflects that love and affection in every one of its pages. Watch this space for more news of this exciting and unique guidebook.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Lost Coast of Cambodia

Travel writer Tim Patterson and photographer Ryan Libre crossed into Cambodia at Christmas Eve 2006 and spent the next two months traversing the country's wild Southwest frontier between Koh Kong and Sihanoukville. They are currently putting together a book of their travels to be called The Lost Coast of Cambodia. In Tim's own words, "we met crab fishermen, sex-tourists, at least one axe murderer and a private eco-army paid by Angelina Jolie. We traveled by kayak, jeep, bicycle and long-tail boat; when there was no other way, we walked. We found very beautiful things and very ugly things, but the overwhelming impression we took away was of impermanence. By Christmas 2007, the coast we experienced will no longer exist. By then, a hardtop road will cut through the jungle and oil companies will have begun drilling offshore. On island beaches, newly trained resort staff will sweep away the ashes of campfires lit by nomadic fishermen. Some lives will get better; some lives will get worse."

Tim's website has some working draft chapters for you to read whilst Ryan's website has some gorgeous photos to enjoy. As they work hard on finishing their book, they have a feature on Koh Rong Island coming out in an Australian adventure travel mag called Get Lost, whilst a feature on the Starfish NGO in Sihanoukville can be found here. I wish Tim and Ryan the best of luck and I'll let you know when its published.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cambodia Round-Up

Its been a busy week and this weekend won't see a let-up either. Friday, in Portland, Oregon, the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon will begin a free public forum to raise awareness about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, taking place in Phnom Penh. The two-day forum will include panel discussions by genocide survivors and scholars of Cambodian history and culture, as well as presentations and performances by authors, musicians, and community activists. Friday, Tiara Delgado will present her 30 minute film Fragile Hopes From The Killing Fields - the story of four Cambodians who survived the genocide and rebuilt their lives: A talented artist. A landmine remover. A California refugee. A young writer. Preceding the film screening will be book readings from Ronnie Yimsut and Alex Hinton. The Forum continues on Saturday with participation from Loung Ung and Daran Kravanh amongst others.

Also this weekend will see the debut of the first contemporary Cambodian rock opera, Where Elephants Weep, which is set to open in Lowell, Massachusetts, US. The opera, which includes English and Khmer songs, with subtitles for both, tells the story of a Cambodian man returning to his country after many decades and is based loosely on the ancient love story Tum Teav, a tale of star-crossed lovers. In the modern version, the returnee, an American-Cambodian, falls in love with a Cambodian pop star. Its scheduled to travel to Phnom Penh in early 2008.

On Wednesday of this week, the first history book written by a Cambodian about the Khmer Rouge was published by DC-Cam in Cambodia. A History of Democratic Kampuchea was written by Khamboly Dy and will be avalable free to high school teachers and students as a core reference book. Cambodian schools teach little about the Khmer Rouge, largely because the subject is sensitive among political groups and high-profile individuals once associated with the guerrilla movement. And previous books about Cambodian history have been written almost exclusively by foreigners. Dy has worked with DC-Cam since 2003 and published a lot of articles in the Center's magazine, Searching for the Truth, as well as leading its Genocide Education project. He holds a bachelor's degree in English from the Royal University of Phnom Penh and is a Bachelor of Business Administration from Cambodia's National Institute of Management. Link.

Finally, moving with the times are the Cambodian districts of Battambang and Siem Reap who are just about to unveil their web portals, in both Khmer and English language! The websites will provide news and information relating to culture, tourism, services and much more. You can find them at Battambang and Siem Reap.

Jimi Lundy arrives at last

It seems like an age ago that I posted a blog about Jimi Lundy, a talented Cambodian-born singer plying his trade in Australia. In fact it was late November and here's a link to that posting. Jimi's working on his second album right now but his first album - Steal My Heart - just arrived in the post this morning and has been on my sound-system ever since, it's great to singalong too. You can hear samples from the album here. It contains ten original songs, penned by Jimi and friends, and is an excellent collection of sentimental love ballads, heartfelt lyrics and catchy melodies. One of the tracks, Cambodia, will feature in the soon to be released film, The Red Sense, from director Tim Pek. You can find out more about Jimi at his website and on MySpace.

Cambodia : words & music by Jimi Lundy & Marcel Yammouni

Cambodia I left you long ago how have you been
Cambodia I always dream of you when will I see you again.

Oh Cambodia I love you so
Without you there's no me
And you'll always be, be my friend
Someday we'll meet once again
My Cambodia ooh Cambodia

Sometimes at night I lie awake tear in my eye
I'm reaching out near and far only love will bring me back
Repeat Chorus:

Waiting For Cambodia (1988)

Waiting For Cambodia is the second of six documentary films I've been sent by DER Films, to celebrate their release on dvd for public consumption. DER produce a diverse range of educational films and filmmaker David A Feingold's focus on Southeast Asia and particularly Cambodia has produced a rich vein of documentary features.
Produced in 1988, Waiting For Cambodia exposes the dilemma facing more than a quarter of a million Cambodians who fled the Vietnamese invasion and ouster of the Khmer Rouge for the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. It examines the diplomatic and political stalemate that kept the refugee camps full for so long, as the Khmers themselves struggled to preserve their endangered cultural heritage. Cambodian classical dance, an ancient tradition very nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, was kept alive by surviving teachers like Van Savay and Nhea Srey Mom in border camps like Site 2. Effectively the second largest Cambodian city with a population of 140,000, Site 2 was just one of the numerous border camps controlled by the various factions of the coalition forces. Site 8 for example was run by the Khmer Rouge, the largest of the factions, and for much of the time the camp remained closed to prying eyes.
Looking into the human cost of the geopolitical impasse that left Cambodian refugees stranded on the Thai border for a dozen years, interviews and soundbytes from various parties included Father Pierre Ceyrac, Congressman Stephen Solarz, who admitted it was "immoral to confer recognition on a gang of mass murderers like the Khmer Rouge," and factional leaders like Son Sann and Norodom Ranariddh. These gave an insight into the period though overwhelmingly the desire from all was to see the Vietnamese leave Cambodia and let Cambodians decide their own destiny, even with the spectre of a return to power by the Khmer Rouge a distinct possibility. The documentary didn't provide any answers to the issues it raised but it did act as a precursor for the political machinations taking place at that time which resulted in the Paris Peace Agreements of the early '90s.
The dvd is an hour long with David A Feingold producing and Shari Robertson directing. Robertson grew up in Texas and New Mexico where she trained in anthropology and ethnographic film. She began her career in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea and followed that with features on Khmer Rouge guerrillas (Inside the Khmer Rouge), Indian archaeologists fighting to restore the ancient temple of Angkor Wat (Temple Under Siege) and explored the tragi-comic crossroads of domestic politics and the American drug war in Peru (We Ain't Winnin'). You can see a clip from the dvd, and purchase it here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Khmer artist Chanthou Oeur

Born on a small sandy island about 20 miles from Phnom Penh, artist and poet, Chanthou Oeur, became an orphan at a very early age and was raised by his sister and Buddhist monks until his mid-teens. After two years as a freedom fighter, and as a teacher in a refugee camp, he settled into a new life, living near Washington DC in the United States, where he's now recognised as a sculptor of some note.
Self-taught, he works in a variety of mediums, including stone, metal and wood. ‘‘My work is always about life and people,” he says. While hesistant to identify a favorite medium, ‘‘it’s like children, you love them in different ways,” he explains, Oeur has found himself working more with stone pieces lately. ‘‘My ambition is getting bigger and I want to turn something that is seen as hard and rough into something smooth and nice while keeping the same look.”
Over the last two decades, Oeur has participated in a number of exhibitions, winning first prize at the global Cambodian Art Festival in Long Beach, California, participating in the Smithsonian's Natural History exhibit Across the Seas and Over the Mountains, and taking part in a Khmer Arts exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. He's also presented his poetry and art at the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota in an exhibition entitled 'Facing Death'. You can find his work at the Khmer Art Gallery in Philadelphia, alongside that of Phnom Penh-based painter Asasax, who's already been featured on this blog. Also visit Oeur's own website here.

Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (fantasy)

Geoff Ryman is a first class storyteller, as we saw when he brought Jayarvarman VII to life in his 2006 novel, The King's Last Song. Now, in his latest piece of magical fantasy writing, a complete short story called Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter, he's been nominated for a prestigious Hugo Award, given annually for the best science fiction and fantasy story. It first appeared in the Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine last November. Past Hugo winners include Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke.

Here's a brief review of the short story by Janice Clark:
Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) by Geoff Ryman takes a look at the life of a hypothetical heir to Pol Pot’s hypothetical fortune. A “poor little rich girl” with unlimited credit and no friends, Sith avoids reading and thinking, amusing herself with recreational shopping. She has only faint, repressed memories of living with her father in the jungle, memories which fill her with horror at the thought of anything that isn’t completely modern, civilized, and sanitized. She lives in isolated luxury, travels in a chauffeured limousine, and never goes anywhere but to an expensive, high-rise shopping center.Two things change her empty life forever. First, she falls in love with Dara, a young cell phone salesman. The other is that she is haunted by the ghosts of her father’s victims. These are modern ghosts who speak through cell phones and other electronic gadgets, and whose photographs are spewed out by printers and copying machines (even with the power turned off).
“There is no forgiveness in Cambodia. But there are continual miracles of compassion and acceptance.” Her love for Dara has opened Sith’s heart. She continues to grow as she goes through the motions of honoring the dead who have no families left to mourn for them. What began as appeasement becomes true caring as her formerly narrow life unfolds like a blossom. Acknowledge the past, says Ryman. Honor the memory of those who died, but move on to the future. Take off your blinders, and accept the world as it is.

In an interview in June 2006 with Carolyn Hill for the Chronicles Network, Geoff Ryman gave this amusing answer to the question; What's your writing process?
"I stare at a wall in despair. Sometimes it's for years. Suddenly I get inspiration. I write the first chapter in blinding inspiration. Then I sit and wait in despair. IF something magic happens and the idea suddenly clicks I write the first draft as a sketch in a haring great hurry warts and all. I have first draft! I read it. I sit and stare at the wall in despair. Gradually ideas for new and better scenes or stories flow in. I start to revise. I think I can do it in three drafts. It takes 8. By the 8th draft I know it doesn't work. I sit and stare at the wall in despair and consider giving up writing. I grind out the revisions, reading the text aloud and polishing, polishing. If the text suddenly reads well, I'm getting there. If after all that revision, it still doesn't click, it means there is a plot problem. There is always a major plot problem. I re-imagine at least a third of the novel or simply cut 30,000 words. I sit in despair."
  • Read about Geoff Ryman's 2006 novel, set in ancient & modern Cambodia, The King's Last Song here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

K'Sai Chivit: Threads of Life (1994)

K'Sai Chivit: Threads of Life is just one of six documentary films on dvd I received in the post today, kindly sent to me by DER Films after my blog entry about a batch of their recent film releases. DER is a non-profit organization founded for the purpose of producing and distributing cross-cultural documentary films for educational use. They produce a diverse range of films and they've just released for public consumption half a dozen documentaries that focus specifically on Cambodia and that were produced by the filmmaker David A Feingold.

Filmed in 1994, K'Sai Chivit: Threads of Life is a twenty-minute film that documents the revival of the traditional art of silk weaving and follows the fortunes of Um Lao (pictured above in the cyclo), who leaves her village in Takeo to train under the master weaver Leu Saem in Phnom Penh, courtesy of a training program set up by UNESCO. We see her at work on her wooden loom, selling her handiwork to a shop-owner near the Central Market and then return to her village where her new found skill will give her a greater opportunity for economic independence and increased confidence and self-esteem amongst her peers. She is also keen to pass on her knowledge to fellow villagers in order to preserve this ancient artform. And just as importantly, it allows Um Lao and her family to pay their respects to her deceased parents, an important part of Khmer and Buddhist life. You can see a clip from the dvd, and purchase it here.

Filmmaker David A Feingold is an anthropologist and award-winning documentary film director. His films include Terror in the Minefields for PBS, Inside the Khmer Rouge for BBC's Assignment, Washington/Peru: We Ain't Winning for Channel Four and PBS and Angkor: Temple Under Siege for National Geographic. He has investigated political, cultural and social issues in Southeast Asia for over three decades. Currently, he's investigating the trade in minority girls and women from Burma, Yunnan and Laos to Thailand. He's previously served as International Coordinator on HIV/AIDS and Trafficking for UNESCO and been a consultant to the Select Committee on Narcotics of the US Congress and United Nations. As co-founder of Ophidian Films, he's brought important issues in the contemporary world to a broad international audience. He's produced fifteen documentary features in Southeast Asia in the last decade with subjects ranging from exclusive portraits of Khmer Rouge guerrillas, the tragic impact of landmines and the fight for cultural survival in a classical dance school on the Thai-Cambodian border. I will review each of his half dozen DER documentaries over the next few days.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Vibol Sok is Living Dangerously

I have news of a new dramatic feature film called Living Dangerously, currently in pre-production from Vibol Films, the brainchild of Vibol Sok Sungkriem, a film director from New York City. Shooting will start in August, with a mid-2008 release date in mind. The film is about hard choices for a group of Cambodian-American teenagers, and doing what you need to do to survive whilst living on the mean streets of the Bronx, a mirror of the director's own tough upbringing in New York.
Vibol Sok (right) credits his love for filmmaking as his salvation from those mean streets of his youth. He has been behind the camera for ten years now working on community projects, documentaries and freelancing. He's worked on several projects such as Race Against Time, co-directed Pump Your Back, boom operator for Dante’s Girl, directed Déjà Vu and written several screenplays. You can find out more here.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kong Nay under the spotlight

As I reported a couple of months ago, WOMAD, the music festival that encourages & expounds music, arts and dance from around the globe, will be held near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, UK on 27-29 July this year and amongst the 70+ artists that will perform, two Cambodian master musicians, Kong Nay and Ouch Savy, will join the event. Kong Nay, is the famous blind musician whose appearance is dominated by thick dark sunglasses and a toothy, face-splitting grin. To maximise Kong Nay's visit to the UK, there are plans afoot for a series of concerts featuring Kong Nay and Ouch Savy, alongside a screening of the film, The Flute Player. I'll provide the full schedule as soon as I get it but its hoped appearances will take place in Norwich on 19 July then Reading, Bristol, WOMAD festival, Cardiff, London, Glasgow and Oxford. The film, The Flute Player is a documentary from 2003 that highlights the efforts of Arn Chorn-Pond to keep alive traditional Cambodian arts through the Cambodian Living Arts project, and involving master performers like Kong Nay.

Sophal Ly of Searching For The Truth, the Documentation Center of Cambodia's regular magazine, interviewed Kong Nay for their February 2007 edition and the full article can be viewed here on the KRTrial Portal website, or in the comments section. It begins:
Kong Nay: Veteran Long-Neck Guitar Player and Singer
On the veranda in front of his small house was a man in sunglasses. He was sleeping with his head resting on his arm. I called out to him, “Uncle Nay!” When he heard my voice, he rose and welcomed me warmly. Despite being sightless, he came toward me. Kong Nay has worked hard to gain fame as a player of the chapei dong veng (a Cambodian stringed instrument with a long neck, similar to a mandolin or guitar). He was awarded first prize in a chapei dong veng competition in 1991. Later, Prime Minister Hun Sen dubbed him “the respected elderly man Kong Nay.” ....

Tub Tan Leang - in love with his work

In January 2006 I met Tub Tan Leang (above) for the first time. In fact he gave me a personal guided tour of the Battambang Provincial Museum, alongside Sak, a former colleague of his at the museum and now my guide and friend. I met Tub again this January and spent another enjoyable couple of hours in his company inside the museum. He just happens to be the Province's Director of Culture and Fine Arts, so he's a very important man - but that doesn't stop him turning up at the museum every day, to tend to his museum's priceless artifacts. Most Province Directors would be sat behind a plush desk, if they're at work at all, but not Tub Tan Leang. He spends every day at the museum, talking to visitors in his well-practised French or faltering English, or more likely, with a brush or cloth in his hand, making sure his exhibits look their best. This is a man who loves his work. And as we went around each exhibit in the museum, you can tell from his demeanour and his knowledge exactly how much his museum means to him. I recommend you visit his museum, its a treasure-trove of beautifully sculpted lintels and other substantial artifacts and contains much of the carving from the nearby Angkorean temples that have been moved there for safety reasons.

I also came across this article, translated from the Khmer newspaper, Kampuchea Thmey, by Dambong Dek. Its published on the Khmer Rouge Trial Web Portal site here, which is worth a visit. The story is about Tub Tan Leang and his museum.

Battambang Provincial Museum: a Detention Center during the Genocidal Regime
Museums are places for keeping antiques from one generation to others.
Tub Tan Leang, chief of Battambang department of Culture and Arts, said that Battambang provincial museum was established during 1966/67. In 1968, under the presidency of the head of state Norodom Sihanouk, it was opened to visitors, but it was then controlled by the black-shirted Khmer Rouges on the 17th of April, 1975 when Cambodia was under the rule of the DK Regime. During the regime, all kinds of infrastructures and sectors were completely demolished, and Battambang provincial museum became a detention center or prison.
Since liberation day on the 7th of January, 1979, a lot of infrastructure has been reconstructed. However, suffering and grief left from the Khmer Rouge regime period still haunts Cambodians as surviving victims cannot forget these cruel acts which took place during the 3 years 8 months and 20 days of the Democratic Kampuchea Regime.
For instance, the evidence of the blood stains of victims whom the Khmer Rouges tortured and killed still remains red on the floor of the museum as well as, the marks of axes on the floor and shackles which were left.
Uncle Tub Tan Leang says, "The red stains on the floor of Battambang provincial museum which still remain until today are blood stains, and it suggests that the museum became a place for detaining people during the Democratic Kampuchea Regime. During the 1980s, when we cleaned up the museum, we found an axe and some shackles, but we later lost them all. Antiques were scattered around the place and all the small objects in the museum were lost. The only items that remain from before are the huge gables of temples which were attached to the museum's wall."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Geoff Ryman in the Post

The Phnom Penh Post catches up with UK-based novelist Geoff Ryman and delves into his most recent works. You can visit my own webpage on The Kings Last Song here. To read my other blog postings on the author, click here.

History's horrors inspired literary beauty
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 16/08, April 20 - May 3, 2007

Award-winning author Geoff Ryman, 56, was born in Canada but lives in England. His most recent short story about Cambodia "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter," has just been nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award given annually for the works best science fiction and fantasy. Past Hugo winners include Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Ryman first wrote about Cambodia in "The Unconquered Country" in 1986, and his 2006 novel "The King's Last Song," is set in both the Angkorean empire of Jayavarman VII and in contemporary Cambodia. "The hidden history of literary creativity anywhere is independent income," he told the Post by e-mail. Ryman wrote to Cat Barton on April 16 about Chinese martial arts films, the Cambodian tourist police and the spark of literary inspiration.

What sparked your interest in Cambodia?
In the early 1970s, one of the American glossies that no longer exist ran a photograph of a Cambodian woman by the bedside of her wounded Cambodian husband. He later died. That image haunted me for about 15 years. In 1975 I read a from-the-scene dispatch in The Times of the evacuation of Phnom Penh that gripped my imagination. But I couldn't get there to write about it, so I wrote a story in a made-up country that bore some resemblance to Cambodia, in a metaphoric landscape of living houses that could mourn their owners and wait for them to return. That was 'The Unconquered Country.'

"The Unconquered Country" explores Cambodian history through fantasy, but 'The King's Last Song' is a work of fiction. What determines which genre you will use for a particular story?
All writing is fantasy in one form or another. A story comes to you; it falls into place; you have to find a pen to start writing. You're not asking what genre is this? You're too busy thinking: I've got to get this written down now before I forget it. Fantasy was useful when I couldn't get to Cambodia. But "The King's Last Song" was an attempt to capture the full sweep and glory of Cambodian history, the unbelievable story. A sense of wonder is a common element [to all writing], and wonder is not the sole province of fantasy.

What was the research process for "The King's Last Song"?
In 2000 I was invited by an Australian friend to stay at an Australian archaeological dig. This inspired me to write about Jayavarman. Returning to do research, I fell in love with Cambodia and the way it was healing [this] inspired the modern story in the novel. Then I had to try to imagine life for Cambodians. I stayed on a friend's family farm near Siem Reap. The tourist police tried to make me stay in a hotel. In London I met a Cambodian gentleman who had left before the Pol Pot era. I took weekly lessons in Khmer from him, but to be honest I find learning languages difficult. I began to use the lessons simply to ask him what Cambodians might say in particular situations. I deliberately wrote "The King's Last Song" to be a very accessible novel, to open Cambodian history up to the West. When they get hold of it, very ordinary readers with no special interest in Cambodia love it. They all say "I must go! Where can I stay?"

Was it different writing a work of historical fiction, rather than fantasy or a novel about Cambodia?
Writing realistic fiction is far easier. You don't have to make up a world, with its social relations, economy and language. You just go and find out what is likely to happen, and if something improbable happens, how circumstances could conspire to create that. What, after all, could be more improbable than Pol Pot? So how did it happen?

What is your impression of the Cambodian contemporary arts scene?
Cambodian writers have a humbling belief in the importance of their craft and its power to move. New writers and poets are giving young Cambodians a voice. Santel Phin has expressed the need for Cambodian fiction to move beyond the Pol Pot era. But the memoirs of survivors are a profoundly moving body of literature that is still the main way for most Westerners to approach Cambodian culture. No one wants to be stuck in events of 40 years ago, but the wars starting in 1970 shape everyday life here. The problem for anybody writing about Cambodia is you have to deal with both Pol Pot, and the new country that has grown up since 1998.

After "The King's Last Song" was released you had the dubious honor of being bootlegged around town. What did you think of making the photocopy circuit?
I totally expected it. It's how publishing works here. It means writers can't make any money from writing. It's okay for me, I make some money from my books. The lack of a market makes writing a hobby for most Cambodians unless they write TV or pop songs. One thing I expect to see soon is the sons and daughters of the new rich becoming writers. The hidden history of literary creativity anywhere is independent income. This is likely in Cambodia as well.

What are your sources of inspiration?
Chinese martial arts films. I'm still hoping someone will want to do a Cambodian hero movie with lots of action based on it. My short story, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter," slammed into me in 2004 when I was lucky enough to be in Soriya Market on the day after high school exams. I knew Saloth Sith [the story's heroine] was just about the same age as them.

Would you be interested in doing a Khmer translation of your work?
There was talk about serializing "The King's Last Song" in a newspaper, but [it] would be a huge task. I think out of them all I'd most rather "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" was translated. It's a manageable length and I think it deals in a recognizably modern Phnom Penh. The question is how to use sales abroad to fund publishing in Cambodia in Khmer.

Upcoming reggae gigs

Just a few lines to highlight some reggae gigs coming up that I'll be attending.

First of all, the Reggae Princess Yaz Alexander is back in action on stage tomorrow, Saturday 21 April, as the main support artist to South African superstar Lucky Dube at the Aylestone WMC in Leicester (9pm-Late). She will be singing her new release Empress and a host of other self-penned songs. Then on Monday 7 May, she will be back at the same venue as support to Beenie Man & Angel (9pm- Late). Read more about Yaz here.

Another of my favourite reggae groups, Gabbidon, are scheduled for their regular spot on stage at the JamHouse in Birmingham on Wednesday 30 May, with a 9pm start. Waltzing through their history of reggae show, Gabbidon will bring us a host of classic cuts from the full range of the reggae genre. Basil Gabbidon will be leading from the front, ably accompanied on lead vocals by Leonie Smith, Indigo and Lee Alexander. You'd be a fool to miss this show. More on Gabbidon here.

And don't miss the next instalment from Reggaebaby Jean Mclean, who'll be backed by Memphis at the Ipanema bar, Broad Street, Birmingham on Sunday 3 June, 7.30pm start (£3 at door). Jean's last show at the same venue went down a real storm. Read more here.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Exclusive interview with Khmer rap star praCh

praCh is a phenomenon. I don't think anyone can argue with that, especially as the Cambodian-American rapper seems set on a course that will ensure he is known to just about every Cambodian across the globe by the time he reaches his next birthday, his 28th. He is a visionary and a leader - he's already CEO of his own company, Mujestic Records - and last year was chosen as the Grand Marshall for the Khmer New Year celebrations in Long Beach, an honour he's rightly proud of. Born near Battambang in 1979, he now lives in California and whilst his appeal is rapidly becoming universal, the road he's taken hasn't been an easy one, as he explains:
"There is no path or blueprint for me. I just went along with my feelings, what is the right thing for me to do. I was raised here in the States like the other millions but as a kid my playground was like none of them. The Ghetto has no remorse. One slip and you're six feet under. Along the way I found music as a way to express myself and address my stories. Even though I grew up here I was born in Cambodia and what other story to tell but my own. Like I said before there was no path just instinct. Survival instinct learnt while growing up is what got me here today. Everything else that came along with it is pride, blood, sweat, and tears."

I asked praCh about his career, now and in the future:
"I dont really call it a career, more like a hobby. But then again I haven't had a 9-5 job since 2001. But what I inherit is beyond my expectation. I now feel the weight of it weighing down on me. Every word that I say, every word that I write, every time I perform, every album that I put out. There is someone out there putting my work under a microscope. But at this stage I am happy with what I have accomplished. I work so hard not just for myself but for my community and last year they crowned me Grand Marshall of the Cambodian New Year Parade. I am CEO of Mujestic Records which I formed in 2000 and I have 2 gifted groups, 4 talented producers under my umbrella. Now I am branching out to films and many other ventures. So its safe to say that my plate is full. On top off everything else, I am happily married to my best friend. What can I say, I'm just lucky. And of course I want to take it to the extreme with our work - to see our names is the limelight and our company in the multi million dollar bracket. All in due time, but for now I am happy with the outcome." [see the Mujestic website for details on praCh and his projects].

Can you tell me what projects you're currently involved in:
"1. My final Dalama album. Title is 'Dalama...memoirs of the invisible war.'
2. The Bassac Project. Me, Thy and Silong went to Cambodia with the help of Charley and Alec of Cambodian Living Arts. We filmed and recorded music with the Masters and their students. it will be out soon.
3. Sin Sisamuth movie. Sin Sisamuth is considered by 99.9% of Cambodians to be the greatest Cambodian singer to have ever lived. He didn't just sing, he composed and wrote all his songs. He died during the Khmer Rouge revolution. There are many stories on how he died but with 5 years of research and countless interviews I think we have the closest thing to the truth. Many film companies and productions want to do the film but his family never give them the rights to it. In 2004 the Sin Sisamuth Association was formed and I became a member at the request of his family and friends. On board is his wife and only son, and some of his surviving band members. Executive director is Mr. Bunly Chhun. See their
4. The film ' Out of the Poison Tree.' We just wrapped that up. I'm very proud of it. I did the music for the film. See their
5. Still in the works is the script for a film called 'Power, Territory and Rice.' It is written by Sojean Peou for Apsara Film Group and the title was inspired by one of my songs from the 'Dalama...the lost chapter' album.
6. I'm currently penning a book, to be published by Manoa and University of Hawaii Press. The title is W.M.D. (Words of Mass Distruction).
7. Producing the 3rd album for 'Universal Speakers,' and maybe a 2nd for 'The 2nd Language' . Also a couple other yet to be named groups."

I asked praCh how important he feels it is to embrace his Khmer heritage:
"'I'm proud to say I am a Khmer with pride, because I praCh refuse to let my culture die' - from the song 'art of faCt', written by yours truly. We have an idenity crisis and there a huge generation gap between the adults and kids. Me growing up I had no one to look up to. No role models. Just my parents. I couldn't relate to any I see on tv or radio so i wander off into their world. Now that I know more about myself I am showing pride in that. The people who listen to me or just support me in general can relate to what I am saying. Now I have responsibilty because kids are looking up to me and mimicking my work. I'm not saying I am a role model but these kids seem to think so. At the end of the day I just make the type of music I would like to hear and the things I would like to see. I'm not parenting or lecturing people because that's not my job. I am a Cambodian American and America is built on a rainbow of cultures. I am showing my true colors. There's more to Cambodia than just the Killing Fields and people need to know that. The kids need to know about their history and culture. Once they learn more they will fall in love with it. So therefore I use my work to invite them in. And it is important for me to be in touch with my homeland. I have to practice what I preach. After all that is my birthplace, how can I forget."

Do you have plans to return to Cambodia?
"As for the moment I haven't made any plans yet. I've been there a couple times and love every minute of it. It hurt me to see the corruption in the government but the pride of the people give me hope. I want to finish my Dalama album and the Bassac Project before I make such a plan. But trust me, in the words of our California Governor, 'I will be back'."

In an interview with Sharon May, praCh explained the meaning behind his name. "The meaning of praCh is 'advisor to the king' or 'person who talks a lot.' But my parents didn't name me praCh because of that. The area where I was born was called Veal Srae K'prach: farmland of K'prach. I'm from a big family. I have three brothers and four sisters - four girls, four boys - and I'm the seventh child. They didn't know what to name me when I was born at the refugee camp, so they just named me praCh."

He's currently adding the finishing touches to his Dalama trilogy with a third solo album. His first, 'Dalama...the end'n is just the beginnin' came out in 2000, was bootlegged in his homeland and became a bestseller; his second release, 'Dalama...the lost chapter,' was released in 2003 and sold over 100,000 copies in the US. He's also written music for a number of films and documentaries and had his lyrics published by Manoa in the book, In The Shadow of Angkor. He's a workaholic, successful at everything he touches and he's providing the Khmer diaspora with an alternate voice for now and in the future.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who Shot the Sheriff? - rocking against racism

Last night I watched a screening of the film, Who Shot The Sheriff? accompanied by a fifteen minute, five song performance from Yaz Alexander, at The Drum in Birmingham. The eighty-minute documentary film was excellent and so was Yaz. The film's images brought memories flooding back of the sheer energy of street-level activism that was generated in the 70s and brought so sharply into focus by the musical combinations of black and white that was so succesful at that time. I loved the union of reggae and punk back then as it was the time when I first became aware of my favourite band of all time, Steel Pulse and other bands like Misty In Roots and later Billy Bragg. My love for their music has never diminished. And neither has my support for their goals. Yaz, who will support Lucky Dube in Leicester on Saturday, brought us right up to date by emphasising the need to forget what colour we are and to live together in harmony. Her short set of five songs included Get Up Stand Up, War, This World, I and More Love.

The director of Who Shot The Sheriff? is Alan Miles and this interview in Socialist Worker Online gives a bit more background to this important film:
‘I first became involved in film back in 1985 when I started work in Soho as a runner for a film company. I then worked abroad for a few years, came back and decided to joined the fire brigade in 1996. A few years ago I started a part time college degree in media production. Half way through doing that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) strike kicked off. I took a camera to rallies and marches, and started producing propaganda videos for the FBU along with Greg McDonald. The whole spirit of that strike was brilliant—the coloured flags, the carnival feel, the public support. It was wonderful to film the rallies and picket lines.
When the dispute really kicked in I went round the meetings up and down the country capturing the same spirit. One of the events we videoed was Joe Strummer’s last gig, a benefit for striking firefighters. When Joe died I decided to make a little film of the gig called The Last Night London Burned. I felt it really summed up what Joe was about. That film got shown at the Glastonbury festival in the Left Field. We also took cameras there and put a film together of some of the bands playing for a Love Music Hate Racism gig — Miss Black America, The Buzzcocks, The Libertines.
That experience got me interested in the Rock Against Racism movement in the 1970s. We’ve started to forget those times. But we can’t forget them, it would be like forgetting the Holocaust. You have to remember and say “never again”. And the fascists are on the rise again with the BNP, though they’re now in suits and aren’t on the streets anymore. So I decided to start researching it, and started by reading Beating Time by David Widgery. It’s a very “punky” book and it really works. I wanted to make sure that imagery was in the film.
I spent some time going through ITN archives, looking through shows and video logbooks. There were some great editions of the London Weekend Show produced by Janet Street Porter covering the British reggae scene and the rise of punk. One show was devoted to Rock Against Racism. It included some rare footage of the legendary RAR concert in Victoria Park, east London. The more I researched the movement, the more it amazed me. There’s so much that I couldn’t get into the film.’

The film features unseen footage of artists from the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement of the 70s and the Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) movement today, including The Clash, The Libertines, The Specials, Ms Dynamite, Pete Doherty, Steel Pulse, Hard-Fi, Misty in Roots, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Estelle and Babyshambles. It film tracks the rise of racism and the National Front in Britain during the 70s - and how a generation, black and white - fought back against the Nazi threat. And there’s lots of rarely seen archive footage from the punk and RAR era - including the infamous 1978 Carnival in east London’s Victoria Park where 100,000 marched to the show headlined by The Clash and Tom Robinson Band. The story uses a wealth of interviews with the leading artists and activists who created RAR - many speaking for the first time about what happened - including David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, Mick Jones, Jerry Dammers, Neville Staples, Jimmy Pursey, Poly Styrene, Don Letts, Billy Bragg, and RAR founders Red Saunders and Roger Huddle. As well as documenting a great political and musical movement, Who Shot The Sheriff? links the struggle to stop the National Front in the 1970s with campaigns like Unite Against Fascism aiming to stop the likes of the fascist British National Party gaining ground in Britain today. Find out more here.

More Cambodia movie news

I am pleased to report that the number of films involving Cambodia and Khmers is growing at such an incredibly fast rate. Take the new film, Bangkok, for example. The film's director is Colin Drobnis, who tells me; "The movie was shot on location in both Thailand and Cambodia. Most of the movie takes place in Cambodia and was shot primarily in and around Phnom Penh. We also shot in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, some of which doubled for Bangkok and some we doubled for Cambodia. The movie is not yet distributed, but we hope to get it there soon...check back at our website for more info."

So what's the film about? Well, with an allotment of cash that would get you only a modest new car, the producers of Bangkok may be setting a new trend in filmmaking: the international no budget feature. This buddy/road movie tells the story of an ex-US soldier with an inability to connect with others who embarks on an impulsive journey to Southeast Asia and the region where his MIA father was last seen. Along the way he forms an unlikely emotional bond with two other Americans: a drifting self-fashioned spiritualist, and a chatty, know-it-all vacationing grad student, who join his quest.The back story of how this feature was made is almost as daring as the one portrayed on-screen. By the end of the shoot, the crew of Bangkok - mostly made up of the four producers who would also do the bulk of the acting themselves - would cover just as much ground, physically and emotionally, as the characters they played. “And money was almost the least of our worries...the dollar goes a long way over there. It’s the logistics of producing in a foreign land and the sheer number of exotic locations and people that proved to be the real challenge”, says Drobnis. “Thailand was a relative breeze compared to Cambodia where tourism, much less film production, is tricky at best.” Yet despite that county’s turbulent recent history Drobnis insists, “they’re still the nicest people in the world.” The road was long for the film’s tiny cast and crew who figure they covered at least ten thousand miles in their pursuit of some seventy locations, and not without peril. Producer/actor, Daniel Miller recalls: “I was mainly worried about some of the crew riding motorcycles in a country where hospitals still have dirt floors...I insisted we get insurance that provided for an airlift to Bangkok where we stood a fighting chance”. But despite his concern, everyone made it home safely with no more than the usual travel-related intestinal issues to claim as health setbacks.

I also spoke to Rodacker OP Muong, the founder of Quest Beyond Films, who told me; "We have a slate of several films planned for 2007 and 2008. Some of them are meant exclusively for the Khmer market and others we plan on taking to an international audience. One of our main goals is to raise awareness of Cambodia on a global stage. The first of the films will be in the tried and true horror genre with an intent to distribute worldwide, while some of the subsequent pictures will focus on more Cambodia-specific issues such as sex tourism. The project immediately following the horror film is a Khmer-language action movie starring local kick boxing hero A. Putong - so as you can see, we're going to be hitting a lot of different genres with our company. We're also looking for partners and investors at the moment or other filmmakers who would like to set their productions in Cambodia." Three film titles they currently have in production are Tears, Downfall and The Last Minute. You can find out more about Quest Beyond Films at their website.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Remembering 17 April 1975

Above is one of Bun Heang Ung's indelible images, recalling the arrival of the Khmer Rouge troops in Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 and the subsequent evacuation of the city (reproduced with kind permission).
Thirty-two years ago today, Phnom Penh, the war-torn capital of Cambodia, was captured by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas to signal the start of a period of unequalled brutality and terror that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people from execution, starvation, disease and overwork. The cartoonist and animator Bun Heang Ung included many of his own drawings in his book, The Murderous Revolution - his real-life struggle to survive the Khmer Rouge regime - and these are a vivid testimony of those tragic times. Bun collaborated with Martin Stuart-Fox to produce the book, which was first published in 1985. His own website, Sacrava Toons, displays a wealth of his work. Click on the archived month - March 2005 - to see a number of his impressive drawings from The Murderous Revolution. Also view my own webpage on Bun Heang Ung here.
* * * * *
Var Hong Ashe was born in Cambodia where she worked as an English teacher. She has lived in England since 1979, and is the author of From Phnom Penh to Paradise (Hodder & Stoughton, 1988). Here, she recalls what took place in Phnom Penh 32 years ago today:
On 17 April 1975, we applauded the parade of victorious Khmer Rouge soldiers in the streets of Phnom Penh. Everyone was so happy just thinking it was the end of the civil war, which had lasted for five years and had already created so much suffering. We could not have imagined what was to come.
A few hours later, our misery started. The Khmer Rouge ordered us to leave the city “for three hours only” and to carry nothing with us so that they could search the place for republican soldiers who had gone into hiding. This order applied to all towns and cities, small or large, throughout the country. Of course, people did what they were ordered to do.
I left my house with my mother (who was going blind for lack of essential care after an eye operation), my two daughters, three sisters and two brothers. My father and my husband were not with us, and I was to learn their fates only later. My father, a colonel and head of a regiment of 2,000 soldiers was at the frontline; the Khmer Rouge killed him along with his brother officers when they surrendered. My husband was in Paris during this period; the Khmer Rouge tricked him into returning to Cambodia, and killed him on his arrival.
Five hours passed, one day, two days, three days…. We realised by now that this was a trip without return. The Khmer Rouge fired machine-gun rounds in the air to force us to advance under the intense heat of the scorching sun (April is the hottest month of the year in Cambodia). The children cried of thirst and hunger; the elderly were exhausted; pregnant women gave birth on the roadside; young people broke into houses along the road – empty since their owners had been evacuated ahead of us – to seek food.
We saw unbearable scenes: the decaying corpses of those who had dared question the orders to leave or refused to satisfy the whims of the Khmer Rouge; old people who pleaded not to be left behind; children wailing, having lost their parents; the wounded who had been waiting for an operation and who were forced to leave the hospitals, hardly able to hold themselves upright, with their wounds still open. It was extremely painful and alarming.
Everyone was in a pitiful physical state and an utterly powerless state of mind. Nobody could come to the assistance of others. We were faced with a hopeless situation.
The Khmer Rouge, I understood later, intended to eliminate the rich, the intellectuals, and anyone educated – like doctors, engineers and professors, the majority of whom tended to live in the city. For the Khmer Rouge these people were part of a dictatorial and corrupt regime that exploited the poor, and they sought to destroy everything they thought belonged to this world: buildings, luxury cars, villas, refrigerators.
Copyright © Var Hong Ashe, Published by openDemocracy Ltd.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tel, my remote temple guide

This is Tel (and yours truly) after our chicken and rice lunch in a quiet shaded area next to a large baray in the remote Preah Vihear province countryside. It was just after noon on a hot January day and we'd had a well-earned rest after fighting our way through a bamboo thicket and tough undergrowth to uncover yet another very remote temple, namely Prasat Chean Sram. I'd met Tel when I entered his village, Prey Veng, a couple of hours earlier. He was playing volleyball and I needed a guide to visit the nearby temple. He asked if I could wait until they'd finished the game...which made me smile. While I waited I played volleyball with the young women, which was far less strenuous, and more my standard. Later, as we ate our lunch accompanied by bird-song, Tel told me about his ten years in the rank and file of the Khmer Rouge. He was just thirteen when he joined the guerrillas, he's 40 now, and he had no choice but to say yes, like all of his friends. Nowadays, he makes a little money from harvesting resin oil from gum trees, but its a pittance really. I enjoyed his company and 'his' tenth century temple was the best I'd seen for quite some time - it has some beautifully carved lintels on its gopuras and five brick towers and is in good condition - and if you find yourself in that neck of the woods - though he's only ever met one foreigner before - look him up.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Chaul Chnam celebrations

One voice that will be heard everywhere during the 3-day Khmer New Year or Chaul Chnam celebrations will be the voice of one of Cambodia's favourite female singers, Him Sivorn. She is particularly well known for her sweet voice when singing modern traditional styles like Ramvong, Ramkbach, Cha cha cha and she can be found on more cd's and karaoke dvd's than you can shake a stick at. Born in the village of Ba Phnom in Prey Veng province 37 years ago, she rose to prominence when she won a major singing competition in 1989 and has since enjoyed a long stint at the top of her profession, where singers and actors jockey for position as the biggest celebrities in their country. Adored by young and old alike, she has dueted with the top male singers at home and abroad like Noy Vanneth and Preap Sovath, and has been compared favourably with the famous Ros Sereysothea. A quick search on should take you to examples of her singing.
* * * * *
With most Cambodians revelling in the Chaul Chnam celebrations over this holiday period, its worth taking a quick look at their favourite dance styles. In the Ramvong dance, people move continuously round in a circle - it's a simple step that's relaxing because the movements are very easy. You fold your palms, with your fingers at right angles to your wrists, and bring your hands up from behind you in front of your face, straightening and bending your fingers in time to the music. Move your hands in opposition directions - one to the left and one to the right. Move your legs in time to the rhythm too, and in the opposite direction to your partner. The Ramkbach dance is similar to the Ramvong; palms must be folded from below and brought up as high as your eyebrow when unfolded. Both hands and legs must be moved in opposition directions, like in the Ramvong. People perform the Ramkbach dance in a circle too but the movements are slower and more gentle. Besides Ramvong and Ramkbach, the Lamliev and Saravan dance styles are also popular at festival time. Both dances are thought to have originated in Laos, and are quicker in rhythm than the other Cambodian styles.

Happy Khmer New Year to everyone

All Cambodians begin three days of celebration today, as they welcome in the Khmer New Year and the Year of the Pig, taking over from the Year of the Dog. In between parties, games and traditional dances, Cambodians will make traditional offerings of meats, fruits, incense and other delicacies while praying for good luck and good fortune for the coming year. However, if you are in Cambodia beware of anyone carrying buckets of water and tins of talcum powder, 'cause you are likely to get drenched in both.
I wish everyone a Happy Khmer New Year.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Aki Ra - coming out of 'retirement'

I won't try and explain Aki Ra's recent 'retirement' announcement other than to say that the latest word is that he's moving his operation from just outside Siem Reap to a new location in Banteay Srei, where an official unveiling of the new Landmine Museum and Relief Facility will take place on 21 April. Cutting the ribbon will be the Canadian Ambassador to Cambodia, Donica Pottie, alongwith Sok An, the country's Deputy Prime Minister. I never visited Aki Ra's landmine museum in its old location, for some reason I never found the time as I'm usually seeing friends or off into the countryside trying to uncover more ancient temples. But I hear his name constantly and there must be at least three documentaries in final production about the man and his work. As I don't know him or much about his work, other than what I read in the press, I'll direct you to The Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund website which has all the detail you need to learn about Aki Ra and his museum.

Briefly, Aki Ra is a former child conscript of the Khmer Rouge Army, who developed deadly first-hand experience with mines and weapons of all kinds. He spent well over a decade laying mines and booby traps made from almost every explosive ordnance deployed during those long years at war. In 1994, he joined UNTAC and received formal training as a de-miner, continuing to clear mines and uxo devices in communities around the country. By 1998 he had acquired an impressive number of de-commissioned casings from various mortars, mines, and artillery shells. To date it's estimated that Aki Ra has cleared over 50,000 mines and has been documented by dozens of filmmakers and journalists from around the world. He's since completed further de-mining safety and explosives certification from the International School of Explosive Engineering in England. Aki Ra continues to clear hundreds of mines per year and his museum houses a tiny fraction of his de-mining efforts.

Taylor & Khoo - a social cause in action

If you've visited my website, you'll know that I've been a friend of the Sunrise Children's Village for many years. Its a fantastic orphanage located outside Phnom Penh and is the result of the incredible dedication to Cambodia's orphans by the larger-than-life character Geraldine Cox. Find out more here. Sunrise also have a sister orphanage in Siem Reap and one of its major supporters is Taylor & Khoo, a unique fashion and homewares label with a social cause that provides income generation for disadvantaged groups in Cambodia and supports the needs of about 120 children at the Siem Reap orphanage. In June 2002, two Australians, Kylie Taylor & Valerie Khoo, visited the orphanage and Taylor & Khoo, a not-for-profit business, is the result.
The Taylor & Khoo range includes exquisite women's clothing in handwoven Khmer silk, men's accessories such as neck ties as well as silk placements and napkins, cushions and sumptuous silk bedspreads. The range is available from their store in Sydney, Australia and from their online store. Pay a visit to their website to find out more about the Taylor & Khoo story.

A documentary, Taylor and Khoo: The Throwaway Children, produced by James Boldiston of NMG, was aired on Channel News Asia in January. Boldiston says: “A crew from NMG flew to Cambodia, and filmed the environment to show potential benefactors the conditions the children are currently living in. We shot a number of locations, and while it was tragic to see the abject poverty some children live in, it was heartening to see the contrast between the old orphanage and the new one that Taylor & Khoo have been able to build.” The result is an hour of commercial television that aims to boost the profile of the Taylor & Khoo brand and provide more funds for the orphans. NMG shot, cut and produced the film for free.

DER films now available

Documentary Educational Resources (DER) is a non-profit organization founded in 1968 for the purpose of producing and distributing cross-cultural documentary films for educational use. They produce a diverse range of films and they've just released for public consumption a number of documentaries that focus specifically on Cambodia and that were produced by the filmmaker David A Feingold.
In March they released Waiting For Cambodia (1988) and Silent Sentinels, Cowards War (1995), while this month, they've made available, Return To Year Zero? (1989), K'Sai Chivit: Threads of Life (1994) and Inside The Khmer Rouge (1990). Each one of these films takes an intriguing look at a facet of life in Cambodia.
To find out more, click here.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reggae Legends

At the Legend gig in Bilston, Wolverhampton last night, I bumped into one of my favourite people in the music business, Conrad Kelly, one of reggae's best drummers bar none. I hadn't seen Conrad since the two Steel Pulse gigs in Paris in November 2004, when he kindly added me to the gig guest-list after my tickets failed to show up. Conrad spent a decade with Steel Pulse before leaving the band in April 2005. He was quickly snapped up by UB40 as their percussionist on a world tour and spent over a year with the group. He's currently working on a new album with Birmingham reggae singer Messenger Douglas, so watch this space for developments. It was also great to meet Lisa for the first time, over here for six months, enjoying the delights of the British spring.

As for the gig itself, Legend provide a top quality Bob Marley experience, ably led by the authentic-sounding voice of Michael Anton Phillips. In two hours, at the well-attended Robin 2 club, they treated us to 18 Marley classics, kicking off with Exodus and running all the way through to an encore that included One Love and Could You Be Loved. In between, my favourite was Redemption Song, with Phillips displaying his vocal talents to the full. Lead guitarist Fonso showed his versatility throughout, while Leonie Smith and Elaine provided sweet backing vocals. An eight-piece band of high quality musicianship, they are well worth checking out. Visit their website for a list of their future gigs.

Phatry Derek Pan : Documentary

Thanks to ThaRum Bun for this article about a young Khmer-American who is making quite a name for himself as an articulate and very capable writer. I met Phatry Derek Pan myself over a drink in the Foreign Correspondents Club when I was in Phnom Penh in January and he's undoubtedly an achiever. His articles appear regularly in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. You can read Phatry's own musings at his blog.
* * * * *
I've just heard about another documentary that's currently in production under the writer-directorship of John Severson. Its called Year Zero: Story of a Khmer Rouge Soldier and is a documentary that revisits the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970's. For thirty-two years, people responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people have lived freely and unpunished among other Cambodians. Aki Ra was a former KR soldier who has since devoted his life to the removal of land mines placed by the KR. Ra's narrative provides the backbone for the film and sets the stage for the upcoming KR tribunal. You can find out more about the film and read the filmmaker's blog here.

Cambodian rock revival

I've brought you all the detail in this Associated Press article over the last few months, but its worth including here, just to capture it again.

LA band, filmmakers revive nearly forgotten Cambodian rock by The Associated Press

The jubilant sound of Cambodian rock, nearly destroyed in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, is making a comeback. Several American musicians and filmmakers who were captivated by the music have formed a band, gone on tour and made movies to preserve the once vibrant genre that was formed during the Vietnam War era when Cambodian artists blended the sounds of American pop heard on U.S. military radios with their traditional music. "It's pretty incredible that somehow Cambodian musicians got rock 'n' roll right during the late 1960s and '70s," said documentary maker John Pirozzi, whose film Don't Think I've Forgotten, is about the emergence of Cambodian rock and the fate of some of its iconic stars.
The music is a mix of surf and psychedelic rock combined with the distinctive melodies and soaring vocal styles of Cambodian folk music. "Outside of the United States and England, there was no good rock 'n' roll elsewhere in the world, but they managed to make it their own and make it into something unique," Pirozzi said.
When the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-79, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, overwork, medical neglect and execution in the notorious killing fields. Artists and intellectuals were deemed enemies of the classless society the brutal regime was trying to create. Cultural and performing arts institutions were closed, instruments and records burned. Singers who could not flee were killed or forced to sing propaganda songs. Some surviving musicians said they went to great lengths to hide their identities in labor camps.
The country's most popular female singer Ros Sereysothea died mysteriously during those years, and even today no one knows for sure what happened to her. Her life is the subject of the short film The Golden Voice. "I got enthralled by the music, it was like nothing I've ever heard before," said the film's director Greg Cahill. "It sounds like '60s American rock but with a totally different spin on it." Cahill said he learned about Sereysothea by interviewing many killing fields survivors who resettled in Long Beach, home to the country's largest Cambodian community. He wrote his script in English, had it translated to Khmer, hired a Cambodian cast and shot the movie in the Los Angeles area. The movie premiered in Long Beach, California in October and was warmly received by a mostly Cambodian audience. "A lot of people said they were happy we made the film because it's telling this very important story that's been buried," he said.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever is introducing Cambodian rock to an eclectic audience as it tours college campuses and hipster venues, and performs in Cambodian communities across the country and abroad. The band was formed in 2001 by Ethan Holtzman, who discovered the music while traveling across Cambodia. He returned home and recruited his brother Zac, three other Americans and a Cambodian-born singer to help him cover some of the infectious pop and rock tunes he heard on his trip. "I traveled all over Southeast Asia, but Cambodia really stood out from the other countries because of its history and what its people had been through," Holtzman said. "I came back wanting to pay respect to the fallen musicians and their body of work." The band's most memorable show took place in late 2005 in a shantytown outside Phnom Penh where the musicians collaborated with a group of students. The trip is the subject of another documentary by Pirozzi, called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. "It was an emotional day," recalled bassist Senon Williams. "These kids knew all the old songs, and we were able to jam together even when we didn't speak the same language."
Back home, they're attracting a new generation of Cambodians raised in the United States. At a recent show in Santa Monica, a large group of Cambodian college students crowded near the stage, shouting for the band to play some of its favorite tunes. They cheered when guitarist Zac Holtzman sang in Khmer, then spontaneously formed a traditional Cambodian dance circle and curled their hands in fanlike motion. Thary Duong, a 21-year-old UCLA student, said she grew up in California listening to alternative rock and recently discovered Dengue Fever." I see this as being something completely American because it's so hip," she said, "but it's taking from the roots of Cambodia."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Survival through music..and dance

Thanks to Loung Ung's blog on her own website, she reminds me of a book that I have yet to read, namely Bree Lafreniere's acclaimed account of the life of Daran Kravanh in Cambodia's killing fields, in the book, Music Through The Dark : A Tale of Survival in Cambodia. Its not a new book, it was published in 2000, but somehow it slipped through my clutches and I must get hold of a copy. You can find out more about it at this website.

Daran Kravanh was born in Cambodia in 1954 into a family of musicians. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, his parents and siblings were killed. Kravanh himself narrowly escaped execution when he found an accordion, an instrument he learned to play as a child, and was ordered to play by Khmer Rouge soldiers. He left Cambodia for Thailand in 1984, lived in refugee camps for four years and eventually arrived in the US in 1988. Kravanh received his BA from Evergreen State College in 1996, has served as a human rights commissioner and works as a social worker in the state of Washington. He volunteers extensively in the community and is the president of the Cambodian American SupportNetwork. Meanwhile, Bree Lafreniere served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Solomon Islands. Upon her return to the United States, she began working with refugees, and in 1992 met Kravanh through the Refugee Assistance Program of Tacoma, Washington. His accounts of life in Cambodia, genocide and surviving the killing fields were so powerful she felt compelled to tell his story in the book. Lafreniere also works as a social service administrator.
* * * * *
Staying on the subject of arts, a 60-minute film, Seasons of Migration, directed by John Bishop and produced last year, is an exploration of the transformation of identity among Cambodian immigrants of Long Beach, California, which has a larger Cambodian population of any city outside of Phnom Penh. These newcomers exist somewhere between two cultures but have largely absorbed the American way of life; nevertheless, they do not wish to ignore their Cambodian heritage so rooted in classical eastern mythology. Choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro uses current realities to create a new mythology in the classically oriented dance performances. The documentary is available to buy through the Khmer Arts Academy website.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro (pictured right) was only eight years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and took control of her country but she survived the devastation to become one of the first generation of young artists to graduate from Royal University of Fine Arts after the regime’s collapse. She subsequently taught at RUFA and joined with colleagues and other Cambodian artists in a movement to revive the rich cultural traditions that had been all but obliterated by the Khmer Rouge. Although Ms Shapiro emigrated to the USA in 1991, she returns to Cambodia frequently to teach and conduct dance projects. She currently resides in Long Beach, California, where she is the co-founder and artistic director of the Khmer Arts Academy, a performing arts organization dedicated to fostering the vitality of Cambodian arts and culture.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

And the music lives on...

Music plays a large part in my life, so I will share with you some forthcomings gigs I'll be attending. Tomorrow night (Thursday 12 April) I'll be making my way to Bilston in Wolverhampton to watch Legend at the Robin 2 club (band on stage at 9pm, cost £8.50). They're an eight-piece band of musicians and singers, led by Michael Anton Phillips, whose two hour show covers the very best of Bob Marley’s timeless classics like Is This Love, No Woman No Cry, Waiting in Vain, Exodus, I Shot The Sheriff, Jamming and Could You Be Loved. They also happen to have in their ranks, talented singer Leonie Smith, one of my very favourite female vocalists. You can usually find Leonie taking lead vocals with the band Gabbidon. Read all about Leonie here and find out more about Legend at their website.

Next week will find me winging my way to one of my regular venues, The Drum in Birmingham, on Tuesday 17 April, to watch the film, Who Shot the Sheriff, the story of the Rock Against Racism movement featuring unseen footage of artists of the 70's and the Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) movement today. Groups like Steel Pulse, Sham 69, The Clash and Ms Dynamite will be featured. The film tracks the rise of racism and the National Front in Britain and how a generation, black and white, fought back. It starts at 7pm (tickets £4), there will be a post screening discussion and songs from Birmingham's very own singer songwriter Yaz Alexander, the Reggae Princess. Yaz is an extremely talented singer and will be back on stage again later that week, on Saturday 21 April, as the main support artist to Lucky Dube at the Aylestone WMC in Leicester (9pm-Late). On Monday 7 May, she will be back at the same venue as support to Beenie Man & Angel (9pm- Late). Read more about Yaz here.

Khmer film explosion

The number of feature films and documentaries being produced relating to Cambodia or by Cambodians these days is pretty staggering. I've just heard of two more and I'm sure there are many more out there that I haven't come across yet. If you do know of any, please let me know.

Let's start with an ambitious project by Sothea Studios who've produced a short 15 minute film called The Perfect Date, which is actually the precursor for a feature length comedy about a group of life-long friends, which will be called Finding Natalie. The short film is shot entirely in the Khmer language and is a unique blend of Cambodian and American cultures brought together by the power of comedy. It stars Jared Davis, Paula Danh and Sokham Dira and is directed by Nathaniel Noun. You can find out more about both films here. Also visit their myspace webpage.

The second project is a realistic and gritty feature film Power, Territory and Rice, in Khmer, English and Spanish, written and directed by Sojean Peou, with music and lyrics by Khmer rap star praCh. Sojean tells me, "praCh Ly is the force behind the making of Power, Territory And Rice as it is inspired by him. He's committed to writing new rap songs for the film. It will be shot in and around Long Beach, California on a micro-budget of $50K in October of this year." To find out more about this film, to be produced by Apsara Films, click here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Showcasing Aki Ra's Boys

Another new film earning rave reviews at the current batch of film festivals taking place, Paris last month, Singapore this, is an hour long feature, Aki Ra's Boys by Singaporean duo Lynn Lee and James Leong.

Boreak was six when he lost his right arm in a landmine accident. Family members rushed the young Cambodian to a nearby hospital where so-called 'doctors' performed a crude amputation. Burdened with eight other children to feed and unable to cope with the stress of handling a crippled son, Boreak’s parents decided to send him to a home in Siem Reap for young landmine victims. This film looks at the world through Boreak’s eyes, and through the eyes of his good friend, Vannak. It is a world at once bleak and brimming with possibilities. Through Boreak, we also meet Aki Ra, a former child soldier, trained by the Khmer Rouge to lay landmines. Now in his 30s, Aki Ra is haunted by his violent past and hopes to make amends by giving children like Boreak a home, and by helping remove the millions of landmines still buried in his country. Ultimately though, the film is a celebration of a child's tenacity and indomitable will to overcome the odds. Boreak may be a victim, but he doesn’t behave like one. His zest for life is infectious, his ability to laugh, a testament to the courage and strength children can have in the face of adversity. Read more here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Rithy Panh's latest movie

Last month, acclaimed Cambodian film Director Rithy Panh presented his latest movie to the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva. Its also currently showing in France and film festivals around the globe. Le papier ne peut pas enveloper la braise (Paper Cannot Wrap Embers) is already receiving great critical acclaim and in this interview for Human Rights Tribune, Claire Doole finds out more about this latest docu-movie.

The film tells the story of seven young women forced to sell their bodies in the capital Phnom Penh to help feed their families living in poverty in the Cambodian countryside. Rithy Panh was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over his country in 1975. He lost his entire family and was sent to a labour camp. After escaping to Thailand, he made for France, where he has made more than a dozen films dealing with the tragedy and consequences of the killing fields in which more than 1.5 million Cambodians died. His latest, “Le papier ne peut pas enveloper la braise” (“Paper Cannot Wrap Embers") is an intimate portrait of the women sexually exploited in a still traumatized society.

Why was it important for you to make this film?
I wanted to give these women a voice, to hear their thoughts and feelings. All too often people speak for them. You know I am often asked whether I scripted the dialogue, which disturbs me as it shows how people think they can’t speak for themselves. They can but few people ever ask them.
How did you manage to get access to the brothel?
I told them that I did not want to make a film about them, but with them. We got to know them over a period of one and a half years and I made it clear, that unlike their clients, we were not there to exploit them. It also helped that I got on with the brothel owner. I don’t condone what she does, but I sensed that as a woman, she knew what it meant to sell your body and understood how every time you do it, part of you dies.
Why did you choose to only film inside the brothel?
I wanted to concentrate on them and their daily lives rather than the sensational and sleazy world of the bars and pick up joints where they work. I did not want to make a film about prostitution but about the collective history of these women.
In the film, one of the girls recounts how an NGO persuaded her to testify against her father who raped her. She says that her only wish now is to see him walk free from prison. Do you think NGOs often impose their western values to the detriment of the Cambodians?
Yes this can happen. There are more than a thousand NGOs in Cambodia and while they are very good at emergency relief, they struggle with long term assistance. They are too fragmented and the government has failed to co-ordinate them. It is a jungle out there.
Some NGOs say reconciliation is more important than trying surviving members of the Pol Pot regime at a war crimes tribunal, what is your view?
Many NGOs want reconciliation as donor governments are keen to fund this. But that has no sense if there is still a culture of impunity. I don’t care if the former head of state, Khieu Sampham, is tried or not. That won’t bring back my family or repair the damage done. But we do need a tribunal that delivers strong judgement so that future generations can start to rebuild the country.
Do you believe in collective culpability?
No. Increasingly, perpetrators are being seen as victims. But that is wrong. People need to face up to their responsibilities.
The UN does not recognise that what happened in Cambodia was genocide. Does that frustrate you?
No one wants to call it genocide. So what? You could call it a crime against humanity. What’s the difference? Don’t forget the Khmer Rouge did more than just kill people, they took away their humanity.
What difference can showing the film here in Geneva make?
Films don’t change the world. But, it is certainly a step in the right direction if somebody changes his attitudes as a result of seeing it. It is important that the guys at the UN agencies in town come and listen to these women.
The UN estimates there are 30 thousand prostitutes in Cambodia. How do you see the future? I am more pessimistic than optimistic. It is so difficult to escape prostitution once you are in its clutches. The key is prevention, not cure. Helping poor women and children get an education is ultimately the solution.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The demise of Sin Sisamouth

With the forthcoming bio of famous Cambodian female singer Ros Sereysothea about to be thrust upon us in the film The Golden Voice, it can only be a matter of time before a film of the life and times of Cambodia's revered male superstar, Sin Sisamouth, will be made. Sisamouth was the silky-smooth crooner who ruled the airwaves throughout the 60s and 70s during that golden age of Khmer film and music. His voice could be heard everywhere before his career, and those of most of the country's top artists, came to an abrupt halt with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in power in 1975. Stories about the singer have been commonplace ever since, though a year ago, the story of his death, at the age of 40, came from a survivor of the killing fields that certainly carried a ring of truth. You can read the full story here in the archives of KI-Media. Sisamouth's music is also featured on the new documentary film Don't Think I've Forgotten, that celebrates that glorious period of Khmer music. For more background on Sin Sisamouth, click here.

Khmer hospitality knows no bounds

Left to right: Sinoun, Phearng, me, Jana.
By now I shouldn't be surprised at the extent of the warm welcome I receive anywhere I turn up on my adventures throughout Cambodia. But I never fail to be overwhelmed by the generous hospitality I get afforded wherever I am, especially if I have to sleep overnight in someone's home. That's exactly what happened on my trip in January as my pal Sokhom and myself went in search of remote temples in the backwoods of Preah Vihear Province. We arrived in the village of Yeang at about 3pm and asked the drinks seller where we could sleep for the night. She immediately took us to her parents' house and they took us in like we were long lost family members. A chicken was caught, killed and cooked, rice wine was passed around and we talked long into the night about each others' lives. I was given a mattress, blanket and mozzie net and afforded VIP status amongst the family and their friends that night and the following morning.

The family was headed by Phearng, who was the same age as me, 47, and was born in the village. He'd spent a dozen years in the ranks of the Khmer Rouge, as most of the 70+ families in the village had at one time or another. Sinoun, his wife, was just as gracious a host and they lived with four of their five children. Their eldest was Sinourt who now ran the drinks stall and had two children of her own. Next was Jana, just 20, was was getting married in a month and felt my presence was a good omen for her impending wedding. The other children were Golap 16, Bouty 12 and Vila 8. We feasted on chicken that evening and then fish with omelette in the morning. The photo above is one of about 50 we took of just about every conceivable combination of family, friends and me, the first tourist they'd ever met. In the morning, Phearng was our guide as we went searching for more remote temples, but it was him and his family who were for me, the real highlight of that particular part of my trip.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Khmer takeaway

For three years I co-hosted a Magic of Cambodia day here in the UK, promoting Cambodia as a great destination and revelling in all-things Khmer for 1 day a year. It was a great success and amongst the successful ingredients was the Khmer food we laid on. That food was provided by a Khmer takeaway restaurant in Oxford called AK-City, so I was pleased to see an article in today's Guardian newspaper, all about AK-City. The restaurant is run by Steven and Lin Chung, at Cowley Road, Oxford (tel.01865 243028), and their signature dish is chilli and sweet basil, stir-fried with chicken at £4.15. Here's the article:

The world in a box
Steven: My grandfather is from China. He went to Vietnam and crossed over to Cambodia. I was born in Phnom Penh in 1957. I was there when the Americans were carpet-bombing in the early 70s. At night, we'd hear the noise of the bombing far outside the city. I remember the last few occasions it was very close and the whole house was shaking. That's when my father decided some of us had to go. I was sent away to school in Thailand. My parents stayed through the time of Pol Pot. Since I left, I've lost them both. We had no contact, nothing. I know that my father passed away - how, I don't know. A friend of mine from Cambodia, his auntie in Hong Kong, knows exactly what happened to my father. I keep saying one of these days I need to make a trip to Hong Kong to see her. I want to know, but it's hard for me ... Sometimes I feel guilt because of what he went through and I didn't.
My wife Lin was born in Phnom Penh, though her family is from China, too. We grew up together - the two families were neighbours. Years later, when I was working in England, I heard from a relative that there was a family in Cambodia asking about me. I knew immediately that it was them. I decided to find them. That was 1994 - I hadn't been back for 14 years. I found Lin, her mother and her sister. We married in 1995. I didn't expect that, it just happened that way.
Did you see The Killing Fields? It cannot show everything - it was much worse than that. Lin's family died of sickness and starvation, one by one - eight of them in the family, three of them left. My family was 10, and so far as I know there's only me, my sister in Australia and my brother in Japan left.
After 1975 it was really bad. Everybody was sent out of the city by the Khmer Rouge into the forests to get the land growing. If you refused to go, you would be gunned down on the spot. Some got killed just because they were educated. Anybody who spoke a foreign language had to be killed.
For me, life has just been a matter of change, going from place to place. My wife has been through so much more. She nearly got killed once just for stealing some potatoes; everybody had to do that - if you didn't, you would more than likely die of hunger. You worked from five o'clock until about three or four in the afternoon, and then they gave you one spoonful of rice with a lot of water in it. It was like that all the time up to 1979. Things got a bit better when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.
Lin: I think two months longer and I would have died, too. My hand was injured from a poisonous thorn. I couldn't walk, I was too weak. The Vietnamese came and they sent me to hospital. That's why I'm alive.
Steven: The main thing about being in this country is that you are free and at peace. You can do anything. You make a little money, you enjoy yourself, nobody bothers you. We have three children: Jenny is 10, David is eight and James is five. Jenny and David are both musical. They started violin nearly two years ago and this autumn they are taking their grade five.
Lin: My mother came by herself to Cambodia from China during the second world war. She was seven. She survived, she lived through everything that has happened in Cambodia, and now she is here with us in Oxford. She is very strong.
Steven: Physically strong and mentally strong. She likes the summer here. She loves flowers - she's never seen so many flowers. She's a good cook, too. I like cooking. My father was a chef in Cambodia - he cooked for weddings and receptions for friends and neighbours. My training was as a cobbler, but when I came over here in 1980, shoe factories were closing down; it was the wrong moment to be a shoe-maker. That's why I ended up cooking - first at a French restaurant in Covent Garden. I seemed to pick it up quite quickly, and then, when you see people enjoying their food, it becomes a passion.
I'd love to turn this place into a restaurant. A lot of my customers are students - a group of them like to come out and have a meal. In Cambodian cooking, you use lemon grass. Also coriander, galangal, turmeric. Quite a bit of the cooking probably came over from India. There have always been a lot of Indians in Cambodia. They come to trade. Angkor Wat was built by an Indian merchant more than 1,000 years ago [note: historically inaccurate]. Somebody from the East Oxford Action group painted a mural of Angkor Wat on the side of our building because before that people kept spraying graffiti. They don't any more. The name AK City is short for Angkor.

Remote temples in Preah Vihear Province

If you read any of my Cambodia Tales, you will know that I love to get out into the Cambodian countryside and discover for myself, some of the hundreds of ancient Angkorean temple sites that are dotted all over the landscape of that beautiful country. My latest visit, in January, was no exception and one such trip was my adventure with my trusty sidekick Sokhom, into the unexplored territory of Preah Vihear province, in the northern half of Cambodia. Now we weren't aiming for the obvious sites like Preah Vihear itself, Preah Khan of Kompong Svay or Koh Ker, but for an area where I believed there would be some temples to uncover, although information on the area was sketchy to say the least. As it turned out, Sokhom and I had a superb adventure, we found some great temples, met a bunch of wonderful people and will never forget this particular trip.

Certainly our best temple find was the one shown above, at Prasat Chean Sram, some two kilometres outside the village of Prey Veng, some 3o kms northwest of the Koh Ker complex. Travel in that part of the province is only by moto, ox-cart or occasionally by 4WD in the dry season. We went by moto and it was a tough ride but well worth the effort. The temple itself was a real gem, demined only a year before and still housing numerous beautifully-carved lintels on both its two entrance gates and on its five brick towers. Its a large site, surrounded by thick bamboo and with a lot of undergrowth to battle against. The photo above shows Sokhom admiring the imposing East Gopura, with its delicate sandstone carvings. Our guide from the village was Tel, a 40 year old former Khmer Rouge fighter, who told us all about his decade with the guerilla group over our chicken and rice lunch next to the large baray nearby. Then we moved onto the village of Yeang, where we stayed overnight with a wonderful family, who like most of the 77 families in the village, were formerly in the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Phearng and his wife Sinoun were superb hosts and the next day we went out to find two more temple sites, Prasat Dap and Prasat Bei with Phearng and his pal, Norn.

Temple-hunting in this part of the country is very tough and uncomfortable, certainly not everyone's idea of fun, but for me the rewards are enormous. Not only do I get to see temple sites not seen by western eyes for many decades but I get to spend time with some of the most welcoming and down to earth people you'd ever wish to meet. For me, this is exploring Cambodia at its finest.

Here's a quick link to my Cambodia Tales.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Angkor National Museum

According to their website, the Angkor National Museum (ANM) should be opening its doors this month. However, whether it will be the only museum in Siem Reap is up for debate. There's talk of Korean investment being directed to a second museum at the grounds of the Angkor Conservation compound and a third to be built with Japanese investment. Included in the ultramodern new building you can see on the main road to the Angkor complex, will be a cultural mall which will house restaurants, shops, a library and a spa. There is much debate at all levels and sighs of anguish already, with the suggestion that up to 700 items have been earmarked to be removed from the National Museum in Phnom Penh and transported to Siem Reap to help populate the new ANM. That fact that a Thai company has been responsible for the construction of the new building has also left a sour taste in the mouths of many. Whether the ANM does open its doors on time, we shall see, but the arguments for and against this new visitor attraction (set to cost foreign tourists $13 to enter) will rage on for a long time to come I'm sure.

Pottier on the trail of secrets

One of the major players in uncovering the secrets of the ancient Khmer Kingdom is Christophe Pottier, the head of the EFEO delegation in Siem Reap. He's been based in Cambodia for many years now and has been working closely with the Cambodian government to shed light on the country's history and ancient culture. His most recent excavations have been taking place in the Roluos area and particularly at Prasat Prei Monti, a small temple I visited a few years ago, which sits in a quiet wooded area and is rarely visited by tourists.

Roluos Temples: The search for the royal palace - by Frederic Amat of Cambodge Soir (translation from French by Luc Sâr)

While working in Cambodia with his team, Christophe Pottier, a member of the French School in the Extreme Orient (EFEO), discovered an archeological site in the Angkor area, Siem Reap, containing elements suggesting the presence of a royal palace in the past.
A group of temples located 16 kilometers from Siem Reap, the Roluos group reveals each year more secrets. Christophe Pottier, a member of the EFEO, and his team consisting of archeologists for the Apsara Authority, were involved in the excavations since four years ago in this area which locks up remnants of the first capital of the Angkorian kingdom. After probing areas next to the imposing Bakong mountain-temple, and a village site in Trapeang Phong, the team is trying to locate this year the site of the royal palace, the work was financed by the Excavation Commission of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to an old hypothesis which was never checked, the palace would be located at the Prei Monti site, a few hundred meters only from the Bakong temple.
The first excavation campaign ended up in Prei Monti. In plastic bags laid along the walls of the excavation trench which was dug up since the beginning of this month, the number artifacts found increases. They have no commercial value but they reveal a new page in the history of the kingdom.These are probably the cases of these numerous small fragments of ceramics which were most likely imported from the Middle-East. “In seven years of excavation in sites from similar era, I only found two shards of these ceramics, but nothing yet in Roluos. Therefore, they are hard to find, but here, there several dozens of them. There are also numerous shards of porcelain imported from China, this type has never been found before in Angkor. These foreign ceramics were most likely reserved for the use by the elite. To find them here is a major discovery which suggests the presence of a palace,” Christophe Pottier explained while holding between his fingers small dark yellow shards covered with shiny turquoise green color.
This discovery clearly illustrates that beyond the privileged relationships with China and India, Angkor, in its beginning, had access to a trade network which extended all the way to the Middle East. Cambodia was connected, like its neighboring countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, to a vast maritime network of commercial trades. “We also found a large amount of tiny fragments of mother-of-pearl, coming maybe from an inlaid wood workshop for furniture, and also numerous glass pearls. These objects are also usually very rare on other sites in Roluos. Their concentration in Prei Monti suggests, just like the imported ceramics, a true luxury which brings to mind the presence of a royal palace. Only such locations could hold so much wealth,” the researcher added. “We would thus be at the location where the Hariharalaya palace once stood. Hariharalaya was the first capital of Angkor where Jayavarman II lived. It would be dated to the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth century!”
This exceptional discovery with multiple repercussions took place on a site which presents little value at first sight. Located in a sparse forest, at the end of a road, three brick towers which are in ruins and obviously unfinished by their builders, lie next to an important basin where sandstone blocks were carved out from the massive rock. That is all there is, at least to the untrained eyes. But for the EFEO researcher knows the location by heart. He spent long hours looking for clues along the forest clearings and rice fields. For an archeologist, the land topography is also an element as important as the pottery shards or the bricks found on the surface. For three months long, a survey was meticulously conducted in the inside perimeter of the site, i.e. over more than 30 hectares area.
“The survey of aerial photos showed long ago that the small Prei Monti temple was located outside a vast perimeter wall which was marked by a trench. The dimensions of the perimeter wall are similar to that of the one surrounding the royal palace of Angkor Thom, which we know somewhat about. But our recent survey indicated the presence at the center of the forest, of a clear high point, a rectangular platform of 180-meter by 300-meter. Of course, we did excavate a first trench this year. It reveals some trace of buildings, but other excavations are needed to reveal the floor plan of such a vast palace,” the researcher said. In fact, if the sandstone and brick temples survived through the centuries, nothing remained anymore from the palaces of the Angkorian kings, which were built using wood. How was the court life organized? What were the sizes of the buildings? What’s the use of these buildings? … These are the many questions that will have to wait for an answer until more excavations will be completed. “What is most fascinating in all of this, it is to find a palace site without even knowing what it would look like,” the researcher conceded.

Profile: Associate Professor Christophe Pottier re-established the EFEO research center in Siem Reap in 1992, and is currently Director of that facility. He is an expert on Khmer architecture and archaeology. He has directed important works of reconstruction and conservation at Angkor, in particular on the Elephant Terrace which forms the 500m frontage to the Royal Palace. His research identified a new sequence of complex occupations at that site. He has reassessed the earlier archaeological sequence of Angkor, especially at Rolûos (8th to 11th centuries). His 1999 PhD thesis, An Archaeological Map of the Angkor region - South Area, fundamentally transformed the understanding of the residential and social organisation of Angkor. He is also co-Director of the Greater Angkor Project.

John Pilger on S-21

Following on from the Tribune interview with Rithy Panh, I came across this review by the investigative journalist and author John Pilger on Rithy Panh's stunning film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Any article by John Pilger is worth a second look. As is any film by Rithy Panh.

A journey through genocide. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine forces Pol Pot's former torturers to confront their victims. The result is remarkable, writes John Pilger January 29, 2004, in The Guardian newspaper.

"It is my duty," wrote the correspondent of the Times at the liberation of Belsen, "to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind." That was how I felt in the summer of 1979, arriving in Cambodia in the wake of Pol Pot's genocidal regime.
In the silent, grey humidity, Phnom Penh, the size of Manchester, was like a city that had sustained a nuclear cataclysm which had spared only the buildings. Houses, flats, offices, schools, hotels stood empty and open, as if vacated that day. Personal possessions lay trampled on a path; traffic lights were jammed on red. There was almost no power, and no water to drink. At the railway station, trains stood empty at various stages of interrupted departure. Several carriages had been set on fire and contained bodies on top of each other.
When the afternoon monsoon broke, the gutters were suddenly awash with paper; but this was money. The streets ran with money, much of it new and unused banknotes whose source, the National Bank of Cambodia, had been blown up by the Khmer Rouge as they retreated before the Vietnamese army. Inside, a pair of broken spectacles rested on an open ledger; I slipped and fell hard on a floor brittle with coins. Money was everywhere. In an abandoned Esso station, an old woman and three emaciated children squatted around a pot containing a mixture of roots and leaves, which bubbled over a fire fuelled with paper money: thousands of snapping, crackling riel, brand-new from the De La Rue company in London.
With tiny swifts rising and falling almost to the ground the only movement, I walked along a narrow dirt road at the end of which was a former primary school called Tuol Sleng. During the Pol Pot years it was run by a kind of gestapo, "S21", which divided the classrooms into a "torture unit" and an "interrogation unit". I found blood and tufts of hair still on the floor, where people had been mutilated on iron beds. Some 17,000 inmates had died a kind of slow death here: a fact not difficult to confirm because the killers photographed their victims before and after they tortured and killed them at mass graves on the edge of the city. Names and ages, height and weight were recorded. One room was filled to the ceiling with victims' clothes and shoes, including those of many children.
Unlike Belsen or Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng was primarily a political death centre. Leading members of the Khmer Rouge movement, including those who formed an early resistance to Pol Pot, were murdered here, usually after "confessing" that they had worked for the CIA, the KGB, Hanoi: anything that would satisfy the residing paranoia. Whole families were confined in small cells, fettered to a single iron bar. Some slept naked on the stone floor. On a school blackboard was written:
1. Speaking is absolutely forbidden.
2. Before doing something, the authorisation of the warden must be obtained.
"Doing something" might mean only changing position in the cell, and the transgressor would receive 20 to 30 strokes with a whip. Latrines were small ammunition boxes labelled "Made in USA". For upsetting a box of excrement the punishment waslicking the floor with your tongue, torture or death, or all three.
This is described, perhaps as never before, in a remarkable documentary, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, by Tuol Sleng's few survivors. The work of the Paris-based Khmer director Rithy Panh, the film has such power that, more than anything I have seen on Cambodia since I was there almost 25 years ago, it moved me deeply, evoking the dread and incredulity that was a presence then. Panh, whose parents died in Pol Pot's terror, succeeded in bringing together victims and torturers and murderers at Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum.
Van Nath, a painter, is the principal survivor. He is grey-haired now; I cannot be sure, but I may have met him at the camp in 1979; certainly, a survivor told me his life had been saved when it was found he was a sculptor and he was put to work making busts of Pol Pot. The courage, dignity and patience of this man when, in the film, he confronts former torturers, "the ordinary and obscure journeymen of the genocide", as Panh calls them, is unforgettable.
The film has a singular aim: a confrontation, in the best sense, between the courage and determination of those like Nath, who want to understand, and the jailers, whose catharsis is barely beginning. There is Houy the deputy head of security, Khan the torturer, Thi who kept the registers, who all seem detached as they recall, almost wistfully, Khmer Rouge ideology; and there is Poeuv, indoctrinated as a guard at the age of 12 or 13. In one spellbinding sequence, he becomes robotic, as if seized by his memory and transported back. He shows us, with moronic precision, how he intimidated prisoners, fastened their handcuffs and shackles, gave or denied them food, ordered them to piss, threatening to beat them with "the club" if a drop fell on the floor. His actions confront all of us with the truth about human "cogs" in machines whose inventors and senior managers politely disclaim responsibility, like the still untried Khmer Rouge leaders and their foreign sponsors.
Panh, whose film-making is itself an act of courage, sees something positive in the mere act of bearing witness and, speaking of the prisoners, in "the resistance [that is] a form of dignity that is profoundly human". He refers to the "little things, these unsubstantial details, so slight and fragile, which make us what we are. You can never entirely 'destroy' a human being. A trace always remains, even years later ... a refusal to accept humiliation can sometimes be conveyed by a look of defiance, a chin slightly raised, a refusal to capitulate under blows ... The photographs of certain prisoners and the confessions conserved at Tuol Sleng are there to remind us of it."
It seems almost disrespectful to take issue at this point; but one must. For too long Pol Pot and his gang have been an iconic horror show in the west, stripped of the reasons why. And this extraordinary film, it has to be said, adds little to the why. When Pol Pot died in his bed a few years ago, I was asked by a features editor to write about him. I said I would, but that the role of "civilised" governments in bringing him to power, sustaining his movement and rejuvenating it was a critical component. He wasn't interested.
The genocide in Cambodia did not begin on April 17 1975, "Year Zero". It began more than five years earlier when American bombers killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians. Phosphorous and cluster bombs, napalm and dump bombs that left vast craters were dropped on a neutral country of peasant people and straw huts. In one six-month period in 1973, more tons of American bombs were dropped on Cambodia than were dropped on Japan during the second world war: the equivalent of five Hiroshimas. The regime of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did this, secretly and illegally.
Unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that the bombing was the catalyst for Pol Pot's fanatics, who, before the inferno, had only minority support. Now, a stricken people rallied to them. In Panh's film, a torturer refers to the bombing as his reason for joining "the maquis": the Khmer Rouge. What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed. And having been driven out by the Vietnamese, who came from the wrong side of the cold war, the Khmer Rouge were restored in Thailand by the Reagan administration, assisted by the Thatcher government, who invented a "coalition" to provide the cover for America's continuing war against Vietnam.
Thank you, Rithy Panh, for your brave film; what is needed now is a work as honest, which confronts "us" and relieves our amnesia about the part played by our respectable leaders in Cambodia's epic tragedy.
© John Pilger 2004.

You can read more about the film S-21 at my own website. For my own visit to S-21 in March 1998, click here.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Rithy Panh interview

Filmmaker Rithy Panh for the last dozen or so years has almost single-handedly given Cambodian cinema a voice on the international stage with his moving and stirring portrayals of life in his country. In this interview, Robert Turnbull gives us an insight into this fascinating man.

Staring down horrors of the Khmer Rouge - by Robert Turnbull, The International Herald Tribune.

Ever since his 1994 movie "Rice People" introduced a Cambodian voice to world cinema, the director Rithy Panh has become the conscience of a nation still haunted by the tragedy of its recent past. "From the beginning I knew my work would focus on the problems in my country," Panh said. "It's been 26 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, yet we still don't fully understand why we were forced to live through these horrors."
Having lost many of his relatives to the terror, during which 1.7 million people died, Panh, 42, has returned repeatedly to the personal dramas of national decimation. "Un Soir Après La Guerre" (1998), a feature set among the detritus of postwar Phnom Penh, charts the attempts of a returning soldier to forge a new life in a decimated moral and physical landscape.
The documentary "Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy" (1996) tells the story of a couple separated and fatally tortured at S21, the regime's notorious detention center in Phnom Penh. Panh uses the victims' love letters and extracted confessions as voiceover. "When shall we two meet again," writes Sothy to his wife in a touching misquote of Shakespeare's "Macbeth.
"The same high school-turned-torture center is the subject of Panh's multi-award-winning "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" (2003). To penetrate the minds of perpetrators, Panh spent several years gaining their trust. The results make compelling viewing. There are tears of remorse, but also a chilling indifference. "I had power over the enemy - I never thought of his life," explains one interrogator.
"Most of these men still don't understand how they became killers," Panh said. "It's not simply a question of judgment. We need to find answers to these questions."Pol Pot is dead, but so far not a single person has been tried or convicted for crimes committed during that period. Panh welcomes the upcoming UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge trial, but shares his compatriots' skepticism. "Attempts at reconciliation have long been a feature of Cambodian society," he said, "but how can a nation be reconciled with those who deny responsibility?"
His objective is neither revenge nor retribution: the key to the healing process he sees as lying in the collective memory of victims. "We have no recorded images of the genocide," he said. "If we don't confront the past, we will lose these essential memories; which is why I encourage people to tell their stories. The Khmer Rouge tried to destroy our culture and our identity, but it could never be simply a process of erasing something from a blackboard."
The film's effect was profound and immediate. The former Khmer Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, saw "S21" and admitted the prison's existence for the first time, having formerly denied any knowledge of it. "These men build walls around themselves and live in ideological bunkers," Panh said.
It was that holocaust, he says, that turned him into a film director. Panh arrived in Paris as a refugee in 1980. He started making films when handed a camera at a party at the vocational college where he had enrolled as a carpenter. Panh then attended classes at Hautes Études Cinématographiques, where he shot his first documentary, "Site II," about a Cambodian border camp. Its success at Cannes in 1989 led to introductions to his current group of backers, among them the French-German television network Arte and the French network Canal Plus.
For his last film, "Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé," Panh turned his attention to Cambodia's performing artists. For him, the 10 percent of dancers, actors, and shadow puppeteers who survived the wars are the guardians of longstanding traditions that define Cambodian culture and underpin its identity. Most exist on salaries of between $10 and $15 a month, perform rarely and face an enervating daily struggle against government indifference and corruption.
The film's title refers to the popular Suramarit National Theatre in Phnom Penh, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1994, leaving its 250-person troupe homeless and depressed. Twelve years later, the theater has few prospects of being rebuilt.
Panh shows us the human costs of this tragedy. His film portrays a community that dreams of reviving Cambodia's classical repertory but prostitutes its talents in karaoke shoots and nightclubs to survive. "Soon people won't know what theater is," declares one actor. "Everyone will be watching ghost films or singing the same lyrics like parrots."
During the golden age of the '60s Cambodians enjoyed a prolific film industry with a large roster of home-grown stars and an inexhaustible supply of backers. Leading the endeavor was Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, who used the same theater to inaugurate Southeast Asia's first "international" film festival for the purpose of promoting his own films.
Since returning to live in Phnom Penh three years ago, Panh has witnessed a revival in film culture with the emergence of a new generation of technicians. But he has serious reservations. "Of course I welcome it, but we still have a long way to go if we are going to give expression to our identity rather than escape into some fantasy world." He pointed out that many of the 20 or so entries for Phnom Penh's recently begun national film festival revealed clear directorial preferences for gory thrillers and raucous action movies. "We now live in an era of media and images, but we must teach young people how to create their own images for their own personal expression," he said. Many of Cambodia's recent films, he said, are "cut like pop promos, consumed like popcorn and betray little understanding of the medium's technical possibilities."
Panh would like to see a film school and audio-visual department attached to the Royal University of Phnom Penh as the next step to encourage independent agencies and inspire local production. He acknowledges that private investors will seek quick returns, but would prefer that producers focus on expanding the industry's infrastructure and cultivating new directors.
Panh looks to other developing countries, especially in Africa, as evidence that film can help reignite pride in a culture that previous generations brought close to annihilation. But it needs significant help. His message to the government is clear: economic progress must go hand in hand with cultural development. Forget to develop culture and identity and you remain spiritually impoverished.

Bare Hands & Wooden Limbs Review

On 17 August last year I posted details of a documentary film by Alison McMahan called Bare Hands and Wooden Limbs: Healing, Recovery, and Reconciliation in Cambodia. The film was getting screenings at film festivals last year and is scheduled for the 2007 Non Violence International Film Festival in Canada in June. The following review of the film, by Monika Grzywnowicz is taken from the Feminist Review Blog of a couple of days ago. You can find out all about the documentary and the work of Alison McMahan at the film's website.

Review: The documentary is a shocking, consciousness-raising and eyes-opening movie. It is the true story of people living in post-war Cambodia, who try to re-build their country after years of dictatorship and fear. It is shows how they prepare the land to build new houses, how they clean the ground from millions of landmines and, finally, how they managed to make both ends meet. The viewer sees how the people learn new professions to survive and earn the living – some learn how to deal with livestock, some learn how to plough and others make tools. There might not be anything amazing about this if it was not for this particular little town – Veal Thom.
Veal Thom is a town created completely by landmines survivors, who lost their legs, hands or eyes while “meeting” planted landmines on their way to the shop, work or just taking a casual walk. The film is filled with interviews with the citizens of Veal Thom, who tell the stories of their lives and why they decided to join the amputees’ community. Most often reasons for it are lack of discrimination, feeling of unity, support and the fact of not being looked down on or treated as deformed, weird creatures unable to lead independent life. Moreover, people living in the town fought on different sides during the war and what is important now they are able to live next to each other, sharing and learning from one another.
Everyone should see this film for it is touching, beautiful form, and it teaches us how to overcome prejudices, weakness and that it is crucial to believe in oneself. Equality, understanding and cooperation can do miracles and create something amazing, regardless of the circumstances.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Cambodian Opera - Where Elephants Weep

Past and present meet in 'Where Elephants Weep'
by Kathleen Pierce, Lowell Sun, Mass., USA

Beautiful sounds emanate from the practice room on the second floor of Lowell High School. Through gongs, bamboo flutes, long-neck lutes and electric guitars, a musical landscape of Cambodia comes into view. The orchestra for Cambodian opera Where Elephants Weep, has been hard at practice for the past week. Arriving at 2:30 p.m. and calling it quits at 10 p.m., this cadre of Cambodian musicians could not be more disparate. Traditional musicians from Cambodian academia sit cross-legged on the floor. Messy-haired modern rockers, plucked from the rock clubs of Phnom Penh, sit in chairs. The all-male ensemble, which spans the ages of 18 to 63, seamlessly weave the sounds of old Cambodia and its stirring rhythms with the slow, smoky chords of rock. The backbone of this one-of-a-kind opera arrived a week ago in Lowell and will practice eight hours a day until previews begin April 27.
Seated in the front row, Him Sophy, the composer, has a wide smile. He is relieved that all 10 musicians got their visas in time. Now that that's out of the way, his eyes are on his dream. "I saw Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, all the American operas," when he called New York home for a year. Hooking up with producer John Burt, Sophy, who received classical training in Moscow, is embarking on a creative journey that will likely take him around the world. To achieve the sounds of East meets West, he created instruments and techniques, such as putting four mallets instead of two in the hands of the xylophone player. That instrument, called roneat pluah, was made fuller by adding a second set of wooden bars.
Sophy has composed 50 or 60 songs in both Khmer and English for the six main characters and chorus in this eclectic coming-of-age love story. The musical styles range from traditional, hip-hop, rap, classical and strings. "It's the first opera of mine and Cambodia. With the creation of musical instruments, I am proud of my work," said Sophy, 44. That excitement echoed through the high school last week, as teachers and members of the Cambodian community popped in to meet Sophy and hear the soundtrack of home. The refreshingly current opera, which involves a Karaoke singer, has a larger mission than sheer entertainment. With so many Cambodians calling Lowell home, educators are using the wealth of visiting musicians as edifying starting points. The high school is planning workshops for students and the Light of Cambodian Children is searching for the best essay on what it means to be Cambodian and American today. "I think this would be a valuable experience for young people in America, not only by relaying the story itself, but all the experiences around it. This is the first time I've seen something like this," said Sayon Soeun, executive director of the Lowell-based Light of Cambodian Children. The opera's librettist, Catherine Filloux, sees the bridge of old and new styles as a rebirth of Cambodian culture that will help displaced natives find a way to keep their roots and move on. "I think this piece has a lot of fun in it. It explores darker issues, but a lot of the fun, the joy (of Cambodia) is there," said Filloux.

First preview performances for this ground-breaking opera will take place in Lowell, Mass., USA on April 27, 28 & 29, 2007. The opera is a new commission by Cambodian Living Arts, a project of World Education. Find out more at the excellent Where Elephants Weep website.

Actress Sarina Luy

Watch out for the talented young actress, Sarina Luy, who has the lead role in the forthcoming directorial debut by Khmer Director Tim Pek in The Red Sense, a film which he hopes will motivate modern Cambodians to forget the past, and focus on the future.
Filmed in Australia, The Red Sense features a Khmer cast, all of whom have their own connection to the Khmer Rouge Genocide. Sarina, who plays the role of Kong Jan Melear, the young woman who discovers her father’s murderer in Australia, says “My parents always talk to me about all the difficulties that they went through during that time.” She arrived in Australia in 1995 from New Zealand, after having left a refugee camp in Thailand, in 1991. Each member of the crew had a different reason for wanting to do the film, and for feeling the film was important. “I think the Khmer Rouge time is a powerful memory in the hearts of older people, and they will never forget and forgive.” She says. “I really think this film is very important for overseas Khmers, especially all the teenagers should know about the history and the difficulties that our poor people have gone through.” Sarina also co-wrote the theme song for the film, Svaeng Ruk Pup Tmei.
The film is expected to be completed shortly and to be screened in both Australia and Cambodia, with a worldwide dvd release. Find out more about the film at their website.
[part text copyright of Antonio Graceffo].

Weyreap's Battle

I've been scouring the web for a review of Weyreap's Battle, performed at The Barbican in London at the weekend, but without any success. I couldn't make it to see any of the performances myself. If you did witness them, let me know your views. So as a background piece, this article from The Times on 26 March gives an interesting insight into the performance.

Dancing out of the shadows
Cambodia’s rich dance heritage was almost destroyed in Pol Pot’s killing fields, but the survivors have staged a remarkable recovery, as audiences at the Barbican can see this weekend, reports Jane Wheatley.
Pok Saran was 23 and a talented young dance student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh when, on April 17, 1975, revolutionary soldiers of the Khmer Rouge marched into the streets of Cambodia’s capital and changed his life for ever. Along with millions of his fellow citizens, Saran was taken to a prison camp in the Cambodian countryside and put to work in the forests and rice fields. The interns were cruelly treated, given very little to eat and many were taken out to be shot. Large numbers died from disease and malnutrition.
The murderous Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, had little regard for life — “To keep you is no gain; to kill you no loss,” he famously said — and in keeping with his so-called Communist ideals ordered that all professional and educated people — particularly those with royal connections — should be eliminated. The Cambodian Royal Family had been enthusiastic patrons of the arts and 80 per cent of performing artists died during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Saran knew that at any moment he could become one of them: he lied about his past, claiming that he was a humble amateur, but it was his skill as a flute player that probably saved his life. “The commander of our camp was a Buddhist and had been the head man of a pagoda,” Saran says. “He was brainwashed by the Khmer and forced to be in charge of the killing fields. When he came back from supervising a killing expedition, he would ask me to play the flute to ease the stress he felt. I think this definitely gave me some protection.” Saran never dared to dance. “I danced only in my head,” he says.
This week he will travel to London as a choreographer for a season of Cambodian dance drama at the Barbican. This is something of a miracle: before 1975, heads of state from all over the world came to watch the famous national dancers of Cambodia, but Pol Pot destroyed his country’s vibrant culture and it has taken a quarter of a century to recover.
In 1997 Fred Frumberg quit his job as an opera director in California and travelled to Cambodia as a UN volunteer to help to rebuild the devastated arts scene in Phnom Penh. Three years ago he formed a production company to put on revivals of traditional dance repertory. “Classical court dance is performed by women,” he explains. “The male form of classical masked dance — Lakhaon Kaol — was not considered sacred in the same way and was not receiving so much attention, so some of the dancers came to me and asked me to find a way they could perform too.”
Frumberg managed to get a grant from the American Embassy — only $15,000 (£7,600), but in Cambodia a dollar goes a long way. “There was nothing documented,” he says. “So many people were dead. We had to go to the provinces and find the elder dance masters, bring them to Phnom Penh to help us with their memories.” The grant money subsidised the building of the troupe and paid for costumes and sets. Two years ago they gave their first performance and were immediately invited to Bangkok to perform there. It caused a sensation. A tour to the Melbourne Arts Festival followed and then the invitation to the Barbican. The presenters in each country pay for the dancers to come because there is no government funding. “The Government won’t even pay for passports,” Frumberg says. “A passport costs $100 — a lot of money for a dancer who earns $22 a month.”
Lakhoun Kaol is a dance drama based on tales from the Indian epic of Ramayana , in which gods and monkeys battle demons and ogres. Saran is responsible for the choreography of the giants: “The dancers do not have any extra height,” he explains. “They must represent their superhuman power, strength and arrogance just with their movements.” His colleague Proeng Chhieng is the artistic director and a monkey specialist. “When I was a small boy I loved the monkey’s crazy antics,” he smiles. “It was all I wanted to do, so I became an expert in the role.”
Chhieng’s grandmother had been a celebrated dancer at the royal palace. “My sister and I lived with her and she would take us to the palace to watch while she trained the young dancers,” Chhieng says. By then the Queen had decreed that the monkey roles should be played by men as they required special acrobatic strengths. The boy Chhieng was entranced. “When I was eight years old I donated myself to the palace to be trained as a classical dancer.”
From the age of 9 he was travelling abroad to perform with the company, and in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh, Chhieng was studying new dance techniques in Korea. When he returned to his native country, he found that his family had fled the city and soldiers were in charge. “I stayed in Phnom Penh with other students,” he says. “We grew vegetables to stay alive and kept our heads down.” When the Cambodian Army came to liberate the city in early 1979, Chhieng and his fellow students were taken by the Khmer soldiers to hide out in the forests; by the summer he had managed to escape and trekked to Kampong Thom province, where he had heard that there was a small community of dancers, survivors of the killing fields. They were led by the charismatic Chhang Phon, an elder master and respected dance teacher who was determined to rescue the traditional repertory that had once been his country’s pride and joy. By the mid1980s Saran, Chhieng and others had returned to Phnom Penh to the revived Royal University of Fine Arts to form a fledgeling dance company. There was no money for culture from a crippled national economy — the dancers were paid in kind — but they were back in business.
Twenty years on they have built up a company of 47 and a stunning repertory that is placing Cambodia firmly back on the international stage. The full piece lasts eight hours but Barbican audiences will be treated to an 80-minute episode called Weyreap’s Battle, in which the monkey king Hanuman and his forces rescue King Rama from the evil tyrant Ravena. “It is powerful, action-packed stuff,” says Frumberg, “full of acrobatic flair, often comic with translated narration.” Frumberg was speaking from Greece, where he is directing the opera Nixon in China. He is gradually weaning himself away from his role as a fundraiser and impresario for Cambodian dance. “They’re on the international radar,” he says. “It was all about capacity building; they can fly by themselves now.”

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Cambodia Film update

Here's a timely update on some of the films I've mentioned on my blog in recent months.
Currently doing the rounds of the film festivals around the globe and receiving a lot of plaudits are Socheata Poeuv's excellent journey of discovery in New Year Baby and the K11 Project trilogy of films that are raising the awareness of child sexploitation - Holly, A Virgin Harvest and The K11 Journey.
Also getting its first public screenings at the moment are Beth Pielert's Out Of The Poison Tree and the bio of singer Ros Sereysothea, The Golden Voice, while Michael R Morris' feature thriller Last Seen At Angkor will be out on dvd this year.
Two films that are extremely close to completion are Tim Pek's first feature film The Red Sense (photo of actress Sarina Luy above) and Steve McClure's Rain Falls From Earth documentary. Meanwhile, the docu on the golden age of Khmer music, Don't Think I've Forgotten, is currently in post production.
You can find out a lot more and see trailers of these films at the following websites:
New Year Baby
The K11 Project
Out Of The Poison Tree
The Golden Voice
Last Seen At Angkor
The Red Sense
Rain Falls From Earth
Don't Think I've Forgotten

Socheata returns home

More than six years ago, the sister of Noung, my souvenir-selling friend from Angkor Wat, was married to her Japanese husband and moved to live in Japan. Socheata was 22 years old at the time and when I heard the news, I was taken aback as I'd seen her a matter of weeks before and she'd not mentioned it at all. Older and more mature than Noung and with a great sense of humour, I was saddened by the thought of never seeing Socheata again on my frequent visits to the temples. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Siem Reap this January, to be told that Socheata was back home, living with her parents and working the family souvenir stall at Banteay Kdei temple.

My first stop the following morning was just inside the east gate of Banteay Kdei, opposite the Srah Srang lake, where I enjoyed an emotional reunion with Socheata, now 28 and back in Cambodia for the previous five months. It was great to see her again, she hadn't aged at all and her English was considerably better than before. But why was she back? It turns out that her husband, who was 50 at the time they met, had fallen in love with her on three visits to Angkor and at the third time of asking, she agreed to marry him. For the next six years they lived in northern Japan but also spent a lot of time travelling and she'd enjoyed visits to Europe, all of Asia and lots more besides. I was relieved to hear that her marriage had been a happy one but her husband had died six months before and she felt it was best to rejoin her family in their village near Srah Srang lake. Her selling pitch is Banteay Kdei and she's a real hit with the Japanese tourists with her masterful command of their language. We later met up again at Angkor Wat, where the above photo was taken and also for a meal at my guesthouse on my final night in Siem Reap. It was great to renew our friendship and we'll no doubt meet up again on future visits to Angkor.