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.

Chorus:
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
website.
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
website.
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 google.com should take you to examples of her singing.
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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.
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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.
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