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New York Niche Film Festivals: Cambodia

Written by: FFT Webmaster | May 20th, 2013

Rithy Panh

As part of the month long Season of Cambodia Arts festival in New York, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and noted Cambodia documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh presented Old Ghosts, New Dreams: The Emerging Cambodian Cinema.  The festival ran from April 19-25. The program included ten documentaries and several short films focusing primarily on the devastating impact of the Khmer Rouge regime and development issues dislocating Cambodian society.  Only few of the productions had been shown before In New York like S21: THE KHMER ROUGE DEATH MACHINE (Rithy Panh, 2002)   covering the torture and murder of 13 000 at the S21 prison and GOLDEN SLUMBERS (Davy Chou, 2011), a compelling investigation reconstructing Cambodia’s history of film. Most of the other productions screened were New York premieres and would not have been accessible otherwise.

DUCH, MASTER OF THE FORGES OF HELL  (Rithy Panh, 2012), provides a compelling portrait of  Kaing Guek, known as Duch, who was in charge of the S21 torture prison in Phnom Penh. Using the narrative by Duch from extensive face to face interviews and archival material with eye witness accounts Rithy Panh reconstructs the human destruction Duch engineered.  Duch discusses his rise to power and describes himself as a pure a pure instrument of the party, Ankgar, and claims he acted in the interest of his own survival. He denies having been involved in torturing prisoners because he feared the pain it caused and only taught the theory of enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. But does however admit that the function of S-21 was to turn lies into truth and provides a detailed description of the tools of torture and claims amnesia when confronted with testimony that he was personally involved

RED WEDDING (Lida Chan and Guillaume Soun, 2012). Produced by Rithy Panh, this documentary covers the Khmer Rouge policy of forcing more than 4000 Cambodian women to marry soldiers. Four decades later one of the victims Sochan Pen searches for justice. After her rape on wedding night she remains traumatized by the memory and has not been able to let go of the shame she experienced. In traditional Cambodian culture one cannot talk about it, even to members of the family. She investigates those who gave the orders. Some confirm their participation but claimed they had no other options “If we behaved correctly [enforcing marriages] we live, if not we could die”, others denied knowledge.  Some who gave orders remain silent since they still had the same position as village chiefs they had under Khmer Rouge rule. Sochan’s criminal complaint filed with UN sanctioned authorities has not yet resulted in effective responses

THE LAND OF WANDERING SOULS (Rithy Panh, 1999). Groups of migrant laborers are digging trenches by hand for high tech optic cables to connect Cambodia to other Asian countries and are paid starving wages by Alcatel the French company which hired them.  They were paid 60 cents for one meter (40 inches) of cable dug and laid. But as illiterate former soldiers and impoverished rice farmers they have few if any other options. They and members of their families, including many children dig and in the process find land mines and bones from the war period. Food is derived from the land surrounding the trenches from ants to snakes, buying rice or borrowing money for it. They live next to the trenches with members of their families, exploited by contractors who hired them. In one case the contractor disappears with the money they earned, resulting in a return after seven or eight month of work to their villages as impoverished as they left them.  They have no earnings to pay off debts and support their families. This chronicle of the life of ditch diggers reflects the utmost poverty and privations the poorest have to endure in Cambodia and their lack of representation. The costs of brining Cambodia into the modern age are born by those who can least afford it the poorest of the poor.

THE LAST REFUGE (Ann-Laure Poree and Guillaume Soun, 2013). Deforestation for foreign owned rubber plantations destroys living space and burial places for the Bunon, a hill tribe in eastern Cambodia.  They lose their culture and ethnic identity and skills passed on from generation to generation such as the craft of weaving. No room is left for the invocation of the spirits and their life cannot be reconciled with the market mechanism of modernity as the juxtaposition of a bulldozer destroying their burial grounds and a traditional ceremony invoking the spirits shows. Their attempts to stop the havoc fail since the local police and authorities cooperate with the companies invading their land.  Nor does the tribe have the knowledge or leadership to mount an effective opposition. As a member puts it “money destroys our values and forests”. Some are indebted and have to sell their land; others are forced to trade good land against bad land.  There is no escape they have to work for foreign corporations and their loggers to support their families

A RIVER CHANGES COURSE (Kalyanee Mam, 2012). Following three Cambodians and their families Kalyanee Mam demonstrates the impact of development on rural living and the devastating shift from a primarily agricultural society to a more industrial one. Mam who was the director of photography for the Oscar-winning INSIDE JOB,  records in this superbly filmed journey  from the innermost forests to the garment factories of  Phnom Penh the life conditions of these Cambodians.   Deforestation  and loss of land deprives  villagers of their traditional resources for living,  commercial fishing  leaves no space for individual  fisherman, and  over whelming debts  prompted by poor  harvests  impairs traditional life styles. Thus children are forced to work in the city to support their rural families and pay their debts. There is no more work in the countryside and many rural dwellers are forced to sell their land.  The land once needed for subsistence farming is now used for large scale plantations. Money and market culture displace traditional life styles and as noted by one villager, they all will round up working for the Chinese.

FIVE LIVES (2010).  Trained by Rithy Panh in documentary film making,   five young directors provide compelling presentations of survival in Phnom Penh. Lida Chan focuses in MY YESTERDAY LIFE on a teenage girl who moves to the capital to work in the garment districts but ends up in as a singer in a karaoke bar with some support through an affair.  Though she still has the fantasy of joining a band, she sees no alternative to her current way of life. She must support her family of five members, living in a village including an alcoholic father, a destitute mother and her child.  In THE SCALE BOY Civic Nemag shows us the life of a young boy of Vietnamese descent who has a temporary stay with an acquaintance of his mother but must leave. He makes little money with his scale, will be homeless soon and has no place to live. He resents his estranged mother not able to help him and loathes his distant father.   In A BLURRED WAY OF LIFE Sopheak Sao shows how girls aged 1o years and older are making a living selling newspapers in the capital. One has to supports her country side family including an impoverished mother who suffers from depressions and cannot work. Her father has already died of AIDS. She actually started the supporting her family before she was teen agers and accepts her life because it is her karma. Adding to this, her mother emphasizes there is no time for an education since she has to take care of the family. I CAN BE WHO I AM is ironically the least disconcerting of these documentaries. This production portraits young boys who are lady boys.  Sarin Chhoun offers a very sensitive documentation of the life of cross dressing boys who prefers acting like women.  With reluctance they are accepted by their families but do experience the ridicule and mocking by the outside world. They make a living working in karaoke bars, barbershops or the cosmetic business and if they can afford take hormones to feminize their bodies.  They are aware of the problems faced in Cambodian society, question why they are lady boys and not normal but do not convey the hopelessness found in the other documentaries. To the contrary as one put it they will not go back but plan for a future that will be better. A PEDAL MAN by Katank Yos is among the best films in this group. It is a superbly filmed presentation of the life of tricyclists making a living through deliveries and picking up fares.  Katank Yos excels in filming at night time and close up shots.  The cyclist has no home, lives on the street where he sleeps, eats and washes up.  Making about 7000 riel (less than 2 USD) a day he sends money to his wife for food and her donations to the pagoda.  In his late 50’s, though looking much older, he is afraid of aging and not working.   Now he just makes enough to eat and drink. He notes the corruption in Cambodia “the rich are rich and exploit the poor”, but does not show despair.

The productions presented here demonstrate the expanding Cambodian film industry specifically in the documentary field with much credit going to Rithy Panh.  The realistic image presented of Cambodia and its development issues is sobering.


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