Still I Strive – Uplifting Cambodian Documentary


Cambodian stories in the past two decades have been dominated, quite understandably, by the echoes of the Pol Pot era. Already many accounts of that awful period have been told, and many, many more are due to be shared.

But in Cambodia there is a nascent body of forward looking works -in literature, in film and in music – that exude hope and humanity and recapture the spirit that existed before the 1970s.

Among these is the documentary Still I Strive which is the story of a Phnom Penh orphanage (National Action Culture Assn. orphanage) that gives the children not only a good basic education, but also training in dance and acting. The dream is to perform for the Royal Family.

Released late in 2012, Variety gave the documentary a glowing review.

The power of performing arts to restore hope to damaged young lives is marvelously captured in “Still I Strive,” an uplifting chronicle of the curriculum at the National Action Culture Assn. orphanage in Phnom Penh. Going one mightily impressive step further than standard-issue fare, the docu combines footage of training and rehearsals with an apt action-adventure yarn starring these highly talented children. A winning debut by co-helmers Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith, pic should enjoy a lengthy fest run following its world preem at Busan. Pubcasters should check it out.

Following brief subtitled info stating that 50% of Cambodia’s population is less than 25 years old, and many thousands of children are orphans or come from severely dysfunctional homes, the docu launches with an exciting action sequence. In an open field, an army of child warriors engages in some strong but not-too-violent combat with same-age enemies wearing fearsome-looking white facepaint.

Performers are orphans from Naca, where education in the three R’s is matched by high-level instruction in theater, dance and music. According to association founder Su Savang and head instructor Peng Phan (lead femme thesp in Rithy Panh’s 1994 “Rice People”), training and performance has played a major role in helping to heal the children’s trauma.

Supporting evidence is written all over the smiling faces of youngsters as they take lessons in acting, singing and classical ballet in preparation for the regular Friday night performance at Phnom Penh’s night market. The docu’s central dramatic thread concerns kids’ dream of reaching a high enough standard to perform for Princess Bopha Devi, the greatly admired royal, once the lead dancer of the Royal Cambodian Ballet in the 1960s.

While accentuating the many positives of the story, Pfleghaar and Smith sensitively examine the deeply troubled backgrounds of four children — Real Rothana, Jin Kunthea, Heng Chham and Vin Lyny, all between 7 and about 14 years old. Many auds will shed a tear as the four recall sometimes horrific memories one moment and express unbridled optimism about themselves and their country’s future the next.

Dramatic footage is well constructed to meaningfully mirror what’s happening in and around the orphanage. Picking up new members as they wander through the countryside, the warrior children are being chased by ghosts from the past; their ultimate quest is to seek an audience with a princess. Confidently performed by all the kids, this material packs a genuine star turn by Rothana as the group’s leader. (Rothana says he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up; on evidence seen here, if he does, it’ll be acting’s loss.)

Inventively edited and elegantly lensed with some terrific crane shots in the dramatic segs, the docu is several technical cuts above the ordinary. Composer Michael Reola contributes rousing original songs and a lovely score that includes spine-tingling use of the khem, a traditional stringed instrument. All other tech work is on the money.

To view the trailer, click here.

For more on Cambodian Culture – the Golden Age of Cambodian Pop

For another quite different Cambodian movie – Run: the first Khmer Zombie flick!

I’m looking for a sponsor. $US40 a month.


A few days ago I posted the story of a student who had contacted me via Facebook from Cambodia. He has been unable to go to school because of touch family circumstances. I explained how Savong’s NGO can’t just meet up with strangers and hand over money.

However, as Savong promised to do – he travelled (50kms out of Siem Reap) to a small rural village named Khla Khom, and he met with Mouencheat and his family. (See photo above.)  As you can see, it was a formal meeting and Savong conducted a formal interview, asking about the family’s circumstances (the boy’s real father is no longer alive) and about the reasons the young student is unable to go to school. Clearly, Savong told me, the family is very poor.

The other problem is that the free education system of Cambodia is not free at all. Author Joel Brinkley calls the system corrupt – but the truth is, state run high schools have resorted to charging for tuition because they do not receive enough from the Government. Cheat (that’s his nickname) requires $5 per month for English tuition, $7.50 for mathematics, $7.50 for school materials and – given the family circumstances, also requires $10 a month to cover living expenses – the income he can’t earn if he attends school.

This comes to $US40 per month – a modest sum for which I’d love to find a sponsor.

It strikes me that this is an efficient way of helping a young student who is clearly motivated to complete high school and, in time find a good job so he can support his family. The support enables us to support a young person’s future while keeping the family intact.

Please contact me if you would like to be a sponsor.  The next step will be to complete some paperwork (NGO’s must prepare an agreement with the family, so that they must spend the money for the purposes given) and then, with your support, we can commit to Mouencheat.

He lives in your global village. Would you be prepared to assist?

Today I met a student who needs our help


At least 4 million Cambodians, according to the best available figures, are living below the poverty line. Most of these – 92% in fact – are farmers dwelling away from the main towns and cities. Go just 14kms out of Siem Reap and you will travel into communities where agriculture is a precarious means of existence – dependent on a good harvest of rice, for example, or on fair prices. One bad season can spell ruin. It only takes one.

From within this background I was contacted via Facebook today. We often luxuriate in our friends’ chitchat don’t we – but this same medium puts us just one or two degrees, now, of some of the world’s poorest. I think with the luxury comes a responsibility.

The boy who contacted me is 17. His father is no longer alive, and his mother – a farmer – is finding it hard to make ends meet. She has married again, but the new husband does not get on with his step-children. He doesn’t want to support the boy through schooling which costs around $US20 per month. A new semester began today and he is being asked to stay home rather than go to school. “My mind is unhappy,” he told me.

How should I respond? After some thought I told the boy to contact Savong, and then I contacted Savong to ready my friend for the call.  Savong was very clear-headed. He set out a step by step process to ensure that his NGO would be supporting someone deserving.

1. We send staff to see the boy and his family – to interview them.

2. We will ask chief of village and commune about their background and living conditions too .

3. If everything is true then we will send information to you.

It is necessary, of course, to assess needs before we hand out money, and even if we do go ahead, we need to ensure the money goes toward the schooling for the Grade 9 student, and does not get diverted elsewhere.

Having never met the boy in person, I cannot be sure, yet, what Savong’s verdict will be – but I do know that Savong has a very clear purpose for his NGO and in his email to me he stated it bluntly:

Our goal of NGO to support poor people not rich people. If I support rich people it would be wrong goal of our NGO and the government will complain.

So stay posted and we’ll see what happens. I do admire the boy however. He doesn’t have many resources, but he does have access to social media and he’s followed our websites etc to find a possible solution to his crisis. He has shown initiative and, like so many young Cambodians has expressed his desire to further his education – that’s all he dreams of.

Post script: We found a supporter for Moeuncheat and he is proving to be a stellar student. This week (March 2014) he scored 150 out of 150 in his maths exam. Surely he is heading to University. However there are many more students such as Moeuncheat who could do with you help. Email me if you’d like to be part of one of these wonderful stories.

Duncan Stuart

Ally Holmes and friends from Tasmania

Few visitors to Savong’s School and SHEC get so committed as Ally Holmes who returned to Cambodia earlier this year having raised funds and having brought friends who could make a real difference – for example through installing a water pump at SHEC, and through gifting school supplies including an HP printer. This video by Brianna McIntosh tells their story.