Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Oscar for Nhem En?

Nhem En and some of the photos he took at Tuol Sleng in the late '70s
A 26-minute documentary about the man who took the photographs of the prisoners as they were marched blindfolded into Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh by their Khmer Rouge captors before being interrogated and then murdered, will be up for an Oscar later next month at the Academy Awards. Steven Okazaki's (pictured right) haunting story, The Conscience of Nhem En, looks behind the photos you see on the walls of S-21 at the man who was behind the camera and interviews three of the few survivors to have made it out of that hell hole. The absence of any feelings of remorse by Nhem En is chilling. ''I was only one screw of the machine. I did nothing wrong except taking photos at the superior's order,'' he claims. It will be the director's fourth Oscar nomination - he won best short in 1990 - for this short documentary, which he filmed in January of last year. It is his third film in a series of short personal documentaries, Three Journeys, which includes the Mushroom Club, a look at Hiroshima sixty years after the atomic bombing, and Hunting Tigers, a quirky look at Tokyo pop culture. Then Nhem En was a sixteen year old following orders, today he's deputy governor in Anlong Veng and has announced plans to build his own museum in the town, filled with his photographs and other KR memorablia. To find out more about the director, click here.
S-21 survivor Chum Mey is interviewed for the documentary

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More of the same

This looks like Yama to me, the God of the Dead, who is usually seen riding a buffalo, armed with his mace
The rock-bed carvings at Koh Ker look quite crude in comparison to other rock-face bas reliefs that can be found in the river at Kbal Spean for example or on the cave walls on and in the lee of Phnom Kulen. They need to be cleaned up and all the carvings revealed properly before making a serious assessment of them, though I counted nearly 100 individual sculptures, some more clearly defined than others. They may've been part of an underwater group of carvings in the dim and distant past if the water level of Trapeang Ang Khnar had been higher, or they could've been an offering to the gods depicted on the rock-face, though their location is not close to any of the larger temples at the site. They begin about 50m east of the small shrine of Prasat Khnar. They are facing west - the temples of Koh Ker have mixed orientation to the east and the west - and look out over the small pond. I hope to get back out to Koh Ker in the near future for another scout around and to get to visit some of the temples that have now become accessible in the last year or so.
I reckon this is the elephant-head of Ganesha, son of Shiva, who cut his son'r head off in a fit of anger and replaced it with the first thing he found! I've never seen Ganesha with multi-arms before though, so someone may be able to offer an alternative explanation.
This picture shows where the carvings are situated and that some of them are still covered up by earth
This looks like a worn carving of Shiva dancing whilst drunk
The figure on the right of the central trio looks like a hermit or rishi praying with his long beard
This section of rock with multiple carvings has been defaced and the heads destroyed except for the central figure
My guess is the underworld god Varuna riding a hamsa, though Brahma also rode a hamsa mount at times
An unidentifiable Buddhist figure in traditional posture, with the top of a linga above the boulder
Some of the final rock carvings at the Trapeang Ang Khnar site
Sitting atop one of the carved rock-beds was this three linga-yoni carved on top of the natural sandstone boulder


Rock carvings at Koh Ker

Sunlight shines on carvings of multi-headed Brahma and Yama holding his heavy mace
Now back to those carvings at Koh Ker that I promised you a few days ago. Koh Ker is a fascinating site in many ways. It was a brief blip in the dominance of Angkor as the capital of the Khmer Empire for over 500 years, when Jayavarman IV based himself there for a 23 year period from 921. At that time it was called Chok Gargyar. The temples built there were mainly dedicated to Shiva and the brief period saw a frenzy of temple construction and gigantic sculpture, topped off by the 40m-high pyramid of Prasat Thom. It was believed that a linga of at least 5m in height stood on top of Prasat Thom though no trace of it has been found. On my recent whistle-stop visit, I came across a series of rockbed bas-relief carvings at the site for the first time, numbering around 100 individually carved figures, representing all of the major gods, including Vishnu, Indra, Shiva and Brahma. The reliefs lie in two locations, close to the small pond of Trapeang Ang Khnar, and carved into the sandstone bedrock facing the small pool. Time and thieves have taken their toll on some of the carvings at the site but they are well worth a quick detour to see them and they provide the path for a nice walk through the forest to visit Prasat Damrei. Once the conservation folks have had chance to renovate and clean the carvings, and dig away at some of the earth to expose even more reliefs, then this will become a key stop on any tour of Koh Ker, a site that is now easily accessible by a 2-hour road journey from Siem Reap.
My guess is a brown bear - what's yours? This carving is the first in a long line of rock-bed carvings at Koh Ker
This carving looks almost prehistoric in its form. Does anyone want to hazard a guess as to what animal it is? My guess is rhinoceros.
I think the figure on the left is a rare relief of the elephant head of Ganesha, accompanied by a series of praying females
This looks like a carving of Yama - king of the dead - riding on his buffalo, or it could be Shiva riding on the bull nandi
This is Indra on the 3-headed elephant Airavata, though Indra's head has been cut away
Both central figures riding their mounts have lost their heads. It looks like Indra riding his elephant on the right but the other carving is too indistinct to identify
Varuna was the god of invisibility and is shown ridng his hamsa (swan) mount
Two seated figures, one holding a ball (!), the other a mace, though I'm loathe to guess either of them!
I'm erring on the side of Brahma for this carving though like many of the others, its indistinct and worn through time


Rock and roll update

It was fortunate timing that I caught up with film director John Pirozzi last night at Meta House and briefly chatted to him about his forthcoming film, Don't Think I've Forgotten. He's in Cambodia right now to finish shooting for the film, he's got the necessary financial backing to complete the project and will return to the States soon to edit and complete post-production. With a fair wind, he hopes to get the film out by May or at the latest June. Don't Think I've Forgotten is the story of Cambodian rock and roll of the '60s and '70s that captured the hearts of this nation but came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge took over and killed the majority of its stars. Pirozzi's film will celebrate Cambodia's own musical heyday, which has once again risen in popularity, particularly with the emergence of the band Dengue Fever, who Pirozzi himself has helped to promote with his film, Sleepwalking Through The Mekong.
It will be a full-length feature (90 mins) and he is really keen to get it shown over here in Cambodia as early as possible. It just so happens that he's a Cambodia nut, like a lot of us, and tries to spend a couple of months here each year. I asked him to spill the beans about the film knowing full well that he wouldn't, but at least he threw me a few scraps of information such as the film will include a few recreated scenes, as well as interviews with survivors and their relatives. In researching a subject like music in most countries it would be straightforward in picking through the archives, talking to old stars, finding rare recordings and so on. However, in Cambodia, there's none of that. Effectively, all the film footage was destroyed, all the stars that shone so brightly like Ros Sereysothea and Sin Sisamouth were singled out and killed. So its been a tough job and that's why its taken a while to complete the project, together with the usual problems that independent filmmakers have with funding issues along the way. However, Dengue Fever's success across the globe has given new impetus to the music and a real buzz of nostalgia for the unique melodies and hypnotic rhythms of Cambodia's rock and roll generation which will soon be on the silver screen for all of us to enjoy. Link: Film website.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Arn's mission

I finally managed to see The Flute Player for the first time tonight at Meta House, as part of an evening inspired by the work of Cambodian Living Arts, who are the main thrust of a revival in Khmer performing arts, thanks in no small part to Arn Chorn-Pond, the subject of the documentary film. Arn was a boy soldier in the Khmer Rouge and that stayed with him after he was adopted and taken to live in America. His passion to make something good from his past saw him return to Cambodia to seek out the old music masters, who survived the Khmer Rouge years and to record their music and to hear their stories. The Masters Program, which Arn supported by travelling the globe telling his own personal, and emotional story, became Cambodian Living Arts. His youthful appearance and effervescent enthusiasm belies the heartbreak and sadness that simmers just below the surface, so the success of CLA and the great work they have done in helping the next generation of musicians connect with the old masters is music to his ears. His own life was spared during the killing years by being able to play the flute, so music has been his saviour in more ways than one. Amongst the masters on show was a telling contribution from the chapei king himself, Kong Nai, who was filmed at his home in Dey Krahom, which has now been demolished, as of last weekend. The documentary was filmed in 2003.
Also, as part of the evening, a young CLA student, Sinat, played a series of traditional instruments for the audience and answered questions about both the music and himself, and a short film on the dying art of giant leather puppets was shown and featured a couple of troupes that perform this traditional art in Siem Reap. Fortunately the monks at Wat Bo in the town have been a catalyst in reviving this artform and it seems to have at least secured its future for the short term.
Arn Chord-Pond's own life was saved by playing the flute
Kong Nai gave his usual electric performance in the film
Giant puppetry in Siem Reap is now recovering from near-extinction
The giant puppets are illuminated by a large log-fire, when performing in the countryside
Sinat from CLA and his array of traditional musical instruments

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Footy in April

At last, there's some news on the Cambodian national football team front and it's confirmation that they have some games coming up in early April, in Bangladesh of all places. It is the qualifying group stage of the AFC Challenge Cup where 16 nations, split into four groups, will play round-robin league matches and the top team from each group and the best runner-up will go through to the 8-team final round (to be played in 2010). Already through are the reigning champs India, Tajikistan and DPR Korea. So who are Cambodia paired against I hear you ask? Well, Bangladesh for starters, as they are hosting all the Group A games and hope their new Brazilian coach, Dido, will have some magic up his sleeve. Also Cambodia will face Myanmar (as they did in the recent Suzuki Cup, where they lost 3-2) and the winners of Macau or Mongolia, who will play a pre-qualifying decider beforehand. On paper (well, the FIFA world rankings anyway) Myanmar and Bangladesh are 'better' than Cambodia but it's all pretty close stuff and Cambodia coach Prak Sovannara would be well served to get some friendly games in before the visit to Bangladesh, but with the Hun Sen Cup in full flow and the Premier League to start soon, he may not get that benefit. Let's hope the Cambodian FA see sense and give him that fair crack of the whip I've been talking about.


Prying eyes

The blue-shirted 7NG employers building a wall on the Dey Krahom site
I was at the Phnom Penh Centre building for a workshop on handicraft social enterprises this morning and thought I'd take a look at the Dey Krahom area, just out of curiosity. However less than a minute after wandering into the now levelled area where the Dey Krahom community used to be housed, I was shepherded out by a 7NG security guard on his walkie-talkie, who wasn't prepared to listen to my appeal to take a few photos. So the pictures here are from the top of the Centre that overlooks Dey Krahom (through the trees) and the Bassac White Building, where tenants are still living. The blue-shirted 7NG employees are busting a gut to build a 2.5 metre-high brick wall just a metre from the White Building, much to the annoyance of the tenants who would prefer a six metre space to allow for access and for safety. They've no chance, judging by the speed at which the wall is going up. The future of those residents (up to 600 families) in the White Building is now under threat, as 7NG has confirmed they'd like to purchase the property and relocate the tenants. As for Dey Krahom, apart from a few piles of rubble, its pretty empty and all the former homes of the residents have been flattened and the debris removed. You would never know a community had been residing there until the end of last week.
The new wall is just 1 metre from the ground floor of the White Building behindLife goes on in the White Building despite the wall-building going on under their nose

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bruno goes in-depth

Bruno Bruguier presents the 1st of his series of archaeological guidebooks of Cambodia
Okay so it was in French and I hardly understood a word, apart from the names of the Cambodian temples, but Bruno Bruguier's presentation of his latest work, the first in a series of six archaeological guidebooks on Cambodia that he hopes to publish, was well attended by the Fracophiles in the capital at the French Cultural Center earlier tonight. The 266-page book titled Phnom Penh and the Southern Provinces highlights the main ancient temple sites in the bottom half of the country to an in-depth level like never before, using recent photos and maps, alongside archive photos and drawings from the EFEO vaults as Bruno happens to work for the organization that has done so much to rescue and restore Cambodia's Angkorean heritage. Co-authored with his wife Juliette Lacroix, it's the first in a series of six they have written, though funding has been a tough nut to crack and with the help of Reyum, 3,000 copies have been produced. In front of such luminaries as Ang Choulean and Helen Jarvis, Bruno explained his approach to the research and some of his findings for half an hour before fielding questions from the audience. The first book concentrates on well-known temple sites such as Phnom Chisor, Tonle Bati, Phnom Bayang, Phnom Da, Ba Phnom and the cave temples of Kampot, but also introduces the little known sites at Prasat Chea Hao and Prasat Bassac in Svay Rieng. Funding permitting, he is looking to release the following titles in the future: Tonle Sap Basin and Sambor Prei Kuk; Banteay Chhmar and the Western Provinces; Kompong Cham and the Mekong Basin; Koh Ker & Preah Vihear - the Northern Provinces; Around Angkor.
Bruno takes time out to dedicate a copy of his new book

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Angkor's final chapter

The small temple of Mangalartha opens to the east
Sat quietly in a clearing some 300 metres from the road that links the centre of Angkor Thom with its Victory Gate entrance, lies the final full stop in the last chapter of the great Angkor monuments. It's a temple with three names, known variously as Mangalartha, Monument 487 and Prasat Top East and it's rarely seen except by the nerdy temple enthusiasts. I found the entrance and cycled down the leafy path but it might be a bit trickier in the wet season if there are any streams about. If you visit this temple, you will be alone, surrounded by thick forest, birdcalls and shafts of sunlight filtering through the canopy - sounds idyllic doesn't it, so try it for yourself.
The monument itself is a single sandstone sanctuary, high on a narrow base, with four stairways but lacking a roof, lintels or pediments in situ. There is an inscribed doorjamb and a stele at the site revealed that it was built at the very end of the 13th century, after the death of Jayavarman VII and dedicated to one of his inner court. It is the last known monument to be constructed in the great Angkor period of temple-building. In the leaves that cover the ground you can see at least two broken pediments, showing Vishnu in various poses, and confirming that Mangalartha was dedicated to the god's memory. It is certainly not one of Angkor's most memorable monuments but a pleasant way to spend a few minutes in a place of solitude and quiet contemplation, and it was my first return to this temple since my first visit way back in 2000.
In the top register, you can see the upper half of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, whilst below are worshipping figures
The temple has a series of false doors and windows as it sits on a tall plinth
In this pediment, Vishnu is seen striding across the ocean with various figures and animals also shown but the sandstone hasn't fared well in the forest
The sun shines through the forest canopy to bathe the temple in warm sunlight
The face of a naga covered in lichen, to be found amongst the leaves at the edge of the forest

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Treasure trove of the South

The front cover of Bruno Bruguier's archaeological guidebook
Bruno Bruguier handed me a mint copy of the brand new archaeological guidebook to Cambodia, volume 1, and titled Phnom Penh and the Southern Provinces, fresh from the first print-run tonight and its an absolute gem for temple-enthusiasts like myself. 266 pages, packed full of well-researched text and 236 photos, drawings or maps. It's a treasure trove of detail - the biggest drawback being that it's all in the French language, which I am even worse at than the Khmer language. Tomorrow night, Bruno will give a presentation about the book and his research work on the temples of Cambodia at the French Cultural Center at 6.30pm, in French and Khmer, and the book will be on sale, published by Reyum, for the first time. Co-authored with Juliette Lacroix, it will retail at around $15. He's already penned another five manuscripts for the remainder of the temples in Cambodia and is looking for funding to publish all of his works, even better would be to get them published in English too, and considerably open up the audience for his books. Working for EFEO has given Bruno access to a wealth of historical research, photographs and maps and he uses them wisely in his new book to provide a 'must have' tome for any self-respecting temple-hunter, even if they can't read or speak French like me. I had dinner with Bruno at Comme a la Maison tonight, accompanied by an old friend of mine, Cristiano, a fellow temple-hunter from Kompong Thom and two members of a French television film crew who are following Bruno in his work as part of a documentary on French-influenced cultural sites in SEAsia. If I was ever to throw a dinner party then Bruno and Cristiano would be on my guest-list - I could talk about Khmer temples all night long! Fortunately tonight, my fellow diners did me the honour of conducting most of the conversation in English.
An impression of a cave temple at Phnom Khyang by Henri Parmentier, from the EFEO archives dated 1927. I visited this cave temple just a few weeks ago.

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King of kings

The South Gate of Angkor Thom
I find the giant faces of Angkor, whether it be at the Bayon or the five gates that permit access to Angkor Thom, or even as far away as Banteay Chhmar or Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, absolutely fascinating and spellbinding. I always have. Ever since I first saw them in 1994 when I turned up in Angkor, wet behind the ears on my first trip outside of Europe, and stepped foot into this incredible world of gods and demons, kings and temples. They captured my heart and soul then, and still do today. I simply can't get enough of them. And any chance to show them off and I will. So that's why I will close my recent visit to the South Gate of Angkor Thom with yet more pictures of this impressive gateway into the palace of the gods. I know everyone who has been to Angkor will include photos of the South Gate in their collection and I admit to taking photos there on all of my numerous visits over the years. I can't stop myself. But of course, it's easy to miss the detail when you are blinded by the sheer scale of the whole. And there's enough detail on the gates themselves as well as the causeway lined with gods and demons to keep you occupied for hours. As for who is represented in the faces you see, looking out and surveying the scene from all angles, I tell myself it's the king of kings himself, Jayavarman VII. Today most Cambodians have a picture of the king on the wall of their home and in his day, during the 12th century, this was just another version of the same, images of the king on the wall of his home, reminding his subjects who was in charge and to whom they owed their allegiance.
The gate is crowned by a triple tower with four giant faces looking out at the four cardinal points; north, south, east and west
The faces of Ravana, leader of the demons, is dwarfed by the face-tower of Jayavarman VII
Indra sits atop his elephant steed Airavata on four sides of the South Gate entrance
The face of Jayavarman VII stares out at visitors to the South Gate
The detail of gods and worshipping figures are lost to most eyes who concentrate on the giant faces and the elephant trunks
The faces of the multi-headed gods are also dwarfed by the impressive face-tower of the South Gate
The western face of the South Gate is a little indistinct
Part of the moat surrounding the walls of Angkor Thom reflecting the late afternoon sun

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