New Cambodian Movie – In the Life of Music

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I love film, and I love music so I’m excited by the prospect of an upcoming Cambodian movie that uses a famous Sinn Sisamouth song to tie-together three parallel stories set at pivotal times in Cambodia’s recent history. Sisamouth was the legendary pop vocalist who was adored by Cambodian fans in the 60s and 70s but was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today his music is still revered – a vibrant reminder of the unquenchability of love and of culture.

The film IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC is the creative child of the up and coming female Khmer/American Director Caylee So who is clearly tracing the footsteps of her parents with this drama; her first feature film.

I looked up the movie’s website and here’s what it says about Caylee:

Caylee So was born in a refugee camp in Thailand on September 17th 1981, just after her parent’s escape from the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. When she was just three years old, her family immigrated to the United States. She grew up in Northern Virginia where she spent most of her youth.

In 2000, soon after her high school graduation, Caylee joined the US armed forces and served in the Virginia Army National Guard for the next eight years. There, she wrote for a little column called Caylee’s Corner, a newsletter that was sent out to friends and families of deployed soldiers.

In between tour of duty, Caylee attended Northern Virginia Community College where she discovered her love of writing fiction. She later transferred to George Mason University to pursue a degree in creative writing. Creative writing led to theatre, and theatre led to film; all mediums that had one thing in common: they all captured stories.

In 2011, Caylee was awarded the Zonta’s Women in Film grant for Most Promising Young Filmmaker. In 2012 Caylee received her MFA in Film Production at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, having won the Best Picture and Best Director at her school’s Cecil Awards that year.  She is also the winner of the Director’s Guild of America’s 18th annual Best Female Student Director award.  She is the co-founder of the 1st Cambodia Town Film Festival in Long Beach, CA and the winner of the Linda Mabelot’s New Directors/New Visions Award.

3 Chapters; 3 Generations; 3 Worlds: Changed by a Song.

Directed By: Caylee So / Sok Visal
Written By: Caylee So / Dane Styler
Produced By: Caylee So / Neardey Trinh

In the Life of Music tells the story of how one song “Champa Battambang,” a song made famous by Sinn Sisamouth (the King of Khmer Music), plays a role in the lives of three different generations. It is a feature narrative told in 3 chapters during 3 different decades, depicting the lives of people whose world is inevitably transformed by war. It is a powerful intergenerational tale that weaves through 38 years of Cambodia’s ever-changing landscape.

Chapter One: The Song of Love (1968)
In the small village, a group of musicians ride into town to give a rare impromptu fundraising concert, igniting profound excitement and wonder from all the townspeople. Bearing the burdens and responsibilities of traditions, two strangers: CHY, 16, and PHALLY, 15, seeks to overcome their obstacles, and find a way to attend the concert, a concert in which music and love will be forever intertwined.

Chapter Two: The Song of Death (1976)
Mith, 40’s, a famous singer now living under the terror of the Khmer Rouge Regime, struggles with surviving his own legacy.

Chapter Three: The Song of Birth (2007)
Hope, 26, a singer, songwriter, journeys to Cambodia, the place her mother calls “home” where along the way, relationships will be tested, and one’s quest for identity will give voice to a generation who must reconcile the past with the present in order to shape the music of our future.

An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

Haing S Ngor accepts Best Support Actor Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields

This year a Cambodian, Rithy Panh came close with his movie The Missing Picture, to winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is thirty years ago when Haing S Ngor won his deserved acting Oscar for his part in The Killing Fields: a movie that has very much shaped the West’s modern appreciation of Cambodia. This video clip of Ngor’s acceptance speech hints at the luck he had in being cast for the role (he was not a trained actor,) and simply bursts with his pride, joy and – yes – blessings not only for the Hollywod recognition, but for the fact that he made it out of Cambodia, alive. Watching it right now I admit: I burst into tears.

Another American/Cambodian connection: The Kent State Massacre – 4 Dead in Ohio

Goodbye faithful buffalo. The changing face of Cambodian pop videos.

water buffalo

In 2004 when I first visited Cambodia I didn’t get to see much television until I arrived in Phnom Penh and for one day coped with the cultural overload by staying put in my hotel, reading a Nick Hornby novel and watching music videos. I love Cambodian pop music, but what struck me at the time was how these music clips perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of their day. Here are images and 3 minute storylines designed to connect with the audience. Any video producer wants to use images that easily resonate with the mood of the young fan base: in this case the young urban audience who were wealthy enough, and have the electricity to have TV.

So what were the video tropes of 2004? Well, there were the usual global pop cliches – the Britney dancers and the K-Pop princesses, but what stood out for me was the presence of pining, wistful romances in which the lead singer would walk through city life (the cars, the fashions, the cell phones) but feel empty without their true love: and I’m talking not about a girlfriend or boyfriend: I’m talking about their family life in the countryside. We’d see walks by the river, ploughing with the water buffalo, the greeting of elderly family members: a life without the hustle and shallowness of the modern city.

Here surely was evidence of a widely shared angst about urbanisation. Is the shift to the city worth it? Is modernisation all good?

The most memorable video featured a great singer who wore a straw cowboy hat. A very talented singer: and the story in his video was about family life on the farm. There are two kids and a water buffalo whom they adore. They pat him, feed him, ride on him…they love their water buffalo.

But one day while the kids have trudged off to school the water buffalo is sold by the father. The children come home and are distraught when they learn their water buffalo has gone. They weep and cry.  But the father shows them why he has sold the water buffalo – it is to buy two new bicycles. Now the kids can ride to school!  They light up and – it seemed to me – quickly forget about their old water buffalo. Now they have the gleaming bicycles of modernisation.

Today, ten years later, the music videos have broadly changed. For sure, there is the occasional sentimental story about the girlfriend who dwells back in the village – but for the most part Korean Pop has formed the stylistic reference point for the video makers who churn out clip after clip with the shiny, pounding (and still Britney-esque) K-Pop dance moves and pale-skinned princesses.

I miss the water buffalo.

For more on Khmer music read this one: The Golden Age of Cambodian Pop

Or follow the wonderful work of the restorers of Cambodia’s lost vinyl gems.

Cambodia – film archives released by Pathe

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Before television International News was seen at the movie theatres around the world thanks to newsclips shot by international organisations such as Pathé. Prior to seeing the main feature film, cinema goers were treated to sights and sounds from around the world. Well good news, much of the old black-and-white footage has been rediscovered and restored by Pathe themselves, and this week they released 80,000 film clips to YouTube, many from Indochina.

The footage includes what documentary makers might call pickup shots; backgrounds and scenes that themselves do not have much news value, but allow the filmmaker to set the scene. A lot of this footage has no sound, and in fact when Pathé put together their short news films for the cinema circuit they were heavily reliant on music and on voice-overs scripted by people who had never, apparently, been overseas themselves.

One of the short films released this week is an account of the annual paddle race at the Phnom Penh; 1945. The footage is exciting, and quite telling – revealing French and British troops in attendance. The voice-over makes no reference to the fact that western Cambodia had been annexed to Thailand at the time. It seems these news stories had no time for actual news! And unfortunately the scripted voice-over, in that British broadcasting voice characteristic of the day, is ugly, dishonorable and condescending to say the least. A lot of the “facts” are simply made up.

However, if we can look past this appalling example of colonialism, and turn down the sound then an interesting experience awaits. Some of the footage, the earliest being shot in 1910, connects modern Cambodia with life in the early to mid 20th century. It gives pause for reflection and inevitably asks the viewer; how has Cambodia changed? In what ways is Cambodia now different?

Here are just three links to this footage.

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For more stories about Cambodian film:

Can’t wait for the new film: Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

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That cool guitar group above is Baksei Chan Krung who are thought to be Cambodia’s first rock ‘n’ roll guitar band. In January this year film maker finally called ‘it’s a wrap’ on his documentary 10 years in the making called Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

Long fascinated by the golden age of Cambodian pop music in the 60s, Pirozzi tracked down surviving footage, recording and survivors from the Pol Pot era that all but obliterated the energetic pop legacy. It was an exciting time with many young Cambodians adopting – and adapting – the guitar-driven sounds of the era.

Pirozzi  held a preview screening in Phnom Penh while the official launch of the movie takes place later in 2014.  For a news account of the preview Click here. I’ll keep readers posted but to get a feel for the movie visit the trailer on YouTube.

Meanwhile the Phnom Penh Post article covering the preview pulled together an excellent article on the pop era. This is well worth a read.