New Cambodian Movie – In the Life of Music

song

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.

In Cambodia – social hierarchy is important

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Hierarchies are everywhere in Cambodia. Everybody has their place in a complex social pecking order.

Cambodians have a very strong sense of hierarchy within society. Parents are superior to children, teachers to students and managers to subordinates. Even in the way the Khmer language is structured: the various pronouns recognise the relationship between two people in conversation.And, as ever-faithful Wikipedia points out, there are rich traces of hierarchical or social classifications in everyday language.

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages (see Languages, this ch.). This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had—and to a lesser extent still has—partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty.

You can see hierarchical behaviors in everyday scenes. Monks can be seen walking in rank order, highest in front and most junior at the rear.

A feature of social hierarchy in Cambodia is the “patron-client” relationship in which wealth and power trump poverty and dependence. You see this expressed on a grand scale (the Prime Minister’s patronage/power versus the public) but also on an everyday level where a village elder who is both typically older and wealthier than the people under his patronage, may have many people obligated to him in return for this or that favour.  That’s the essence of the hierarchical relationship: it isn’t held together by overt power so much as by nuanced reciprocity. This from Dr Judy Ledgerwood in her paper: Understanding Cambodia: Social Hierarchy, Patron-Client Relationships and Power.

Both sides provide goods and services to the other. The patron possesses superior power and influence and uses them to assist his clients. The clients in return provide smaller services and loyalty over an extended period of time. The relationship is complementary, with both sides benefiting. The client is protected and assured a minimum level of subsistence. The patron in turn has followers, who serve to increase his power.

The relationship between the patron and the client is a personal one. The clients are not united as a group; rather they are linked to the patron by personal obligation. This then works in a pyramid fashion, midlevel patrons know someone higher and they in turn know someone higher – up the social ladder. The only way to get something that is beyond your capacity is to attach yourself to a superior.

Where does this social stratification come from? It is thought that it originates more than 1000 years ago in the Hindu caste system, though it has been tempered by the more egalitarian Buddhist philosophy. But herein lies a spiritual dimension to the patron-client relationship. There is an inference that success and power in life reflects one’s spiritual attainment and that you are my patron not simply because you are powerful, but because you are spiritually more blessed having shown great piety in your life.

Again, one can see this linkage, quite overtly in the political theatre – and it’s not unique to Cambodia – where powerful leaders invoke religious devoutness in their various ceremonies. But the charade kind of works! A good patron must do as a good Buddhist – and be generous of spirit, and grant favours to the less fortunate. In a sense there is some social control here to ensure a measure of fairness in an otherwise unequal relationship.

But the social acceptance and institutionalization of hierarchy has a dark side as well. As my patron, you might expect me to show my humility (when asking you for a favour,) by granting you an offering. Fair enough? Though at what point does this constitute simply a bribe?

And in an increasingly complex society who are my Patrons? One hundred years ago it might have been easier to answer this. My village elder perhaps. Or the head monk at my monastery.  But today a villager must also pay respect to the village elder, the local police, quite possibly the local political part organisation, not to mention the bank.

Meanwhile these patrons are bound less by religious values, and more by the desire for more power, or greater wealth. The old rules may apply, but the game has changed.

Foreigners are often greeted with a long list of questions as Khmer try to ascertain your place in the hierarchy. Are you the President of your company? Or a low level employee? Are you a friend of the Government and the Minister in charge?

I recall Savong telling me of an incident that occurred 3 years ago. A policeman was trying to bribe him, and he wanted Savong to meet him at Police HQ, Bakong to “sort out a little matter.” According to the Policeman the District Governor was “most displeased” with Savong’s School because it wasn’t registered. (Actually it was, and Savong had the papers.)

The Policeman phrased his story as a Patron. Look, he had contacts with the Governor’s office, and for a small consideration (of several hundred dollars) he could sort this matter out.

“Why don’t we sort this matter out right now?” replied Savong cheerily. “I have the Governor himself on speed-dial.”

And he did, because he’d had genial dealings with the Governor a few months earlier. He picked up his phone.

As soon as Savong began dialling, the panicky Policeman back-pedalled and said there was no need to call and that there had been a terrible misunderstanding. No money was required, there had simply been a mix-up.

When he first told me the story I saw it as a naked example of corruption and bribery. Clear and simple. But now I see the exchange as a much more nuanced exchange, where a young cop wasn’t simply asking for a bribe – he was trying to create a dependency relationship; he was trying to elevate himself, power-wise, up above my friend.

This is one game that any NGO leader needs to be good at playing. A few years earlier the outcome of that meeting could have been quite different.

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.

Sampeah — Cambodian greeting.

When greeting a child, or someone of equal age – the Sampeah is conducted at chest level. What  I never realised was that there are 5 levels of Sampeah.

Westerners like me are often quite hopeless at picking up local customs, and in Cambodia the first and most obvious custom is the Sampeah or greeting. The Sampeah is a particularly elegant and respectful way of greeting friends and strangers, with palms held together, and a slight bow of the head – it is less brusque than the various western equivalents, which must be collectively confusing to Cambodians. Westerners buy turns shake hands, kiss, or go through various awkward attempts.  The protocols of greeting have, if anything, become more confused in the 21st century.

But in Cambodia Sampeah is universal. However as I found, there are five different Sampeah – different levels of greeting depending on the relative age or importance of the other person.

  1. Usually when you meet a contemporary, or someone younger than yourself the Sampeah you use is conducted at chest height, hands together and a slight bow.
  2. But if somebody is older than you, or is a senior position – your boss for example – then the Sampeah needs to be a little higher, the tops of your index fingers basically at chin height. The nod is also a little deeper and more pronounced.
  3. The third Sampeah takes things up another notch. Here, the tops of your index fingers are level with your mouth. The nod, a little deeper again. the Sampeah marks your respectful greeting of a parent, grandparent or esteemed teacher.
  4. When you greet a monk, then your Sampeah is higher again. This time the index fingers a level with your nose. instead of a nod, this time you bow slightly from the waist.
  5. The highest Sampeah, number five, is reserved for Buddha, or the King. Here, you raise your hands so they draw level with your forehead, and you bow deeply.

Perhaps it’s because I am travelling with a camera, or in notepad or have my hands full with shopping bags, but I never seem quite ready to handle that moment of greeting. A friend gestures with the Sampeah towards me, and I’m busy displacing those bags, or handing someone my camera so I can free up my hands. Then when it comes to the Sampeah itself, instead of giving them a respectful Sampeah among equals – a number one – I end up greeting them as if they were the King himself. The same in the classroom: I like to give a formal greeting to the class, and end up sending them the wrong signal – or perhaps the right one even though it is unexpected. The truth is, I look up to these kids, and while technically I should give them a basic Sampeah, I end up offering something somewhere in between the respect I would show for a parent or perhaps a monk.

I am very fortunate that Cambodians are so polite. While my efforts to be culturally appropriate still need some work, I have never felt anything less than welcome.

For more on Khmer customs: Meetings in Cambodia

 

Cambodia – opinion poll captures cautious public mood.

I have long been a fan of public opinion polls because they bring an often ignored voice – that of the public – to the attention of those in power. A wise government need not necessarily be a slave to public opinion, the best decisions may be considered to be unpopular at the time, but it should always heed the sentiment of the public.

Having enjoyed a history of tight media controls, (the television broadcasters fundamentally ignore politics in favour of game shows and pop music,) Cambodia’s Hun Sen government is now operating in a much more openly informed environment. The press, namely the Phnom Penh Post, as well is Cambodia daily, have been active champions for journalistic freedom. Add to that, the Voice of America which, perhaps unlike the VOA the 1960s and 70s, which was very much a propaganda mechanism for the United States, is respected these days for bringing fair reportage to the Cambodian public.

As witnessed in the 2013 elections, the voice of the people themselves – using social media such as Facebook – has emerged as a potent voice in the political mix. The swell of support for the opposition clearly rocked the government. It is perhaps little wonder that this government is now actively gathering of intelligence from the Internet: identifying “troublemakers” in an effort to maintain some kind of control public opinion.

But here’s the thing: the public in any nation tends to have a good common sense understanding of whether the nation is heading in the right or wrong direction.

Right now, 59% of Cambodians feel their nation is heading in the wrong direction.

This is the finding of a significant survey, diligently conducted face-to-face, (I don’t envy the fieldwork design that must have gone into this study,) of 1000 citizens aged 18+.

The news is not all bad for the government, not at all. There is a general sentiment that the public considers the growth of the economy and the development of infrastructure to be good things for the nation. But they sound warning bells – highlighting corruption, deforestation and economic inequities as being causes for real concern.

From my perspective, as a researcher, and as an observer of Cambodia, the The Asia Foundation poll seems to be eminently fair. The Asia Foundation is a watchdog organisation, and for sure, they have an agenda –  “to assess attitudes and priorities of the voting public that may contribute to or constrain democratic reforms,’ but this hasn’t hindered the from asking balanced, non-leading questions, and enabling the public to voice their opinions in their own words.

This from Germany’s public news broadcaster DW.

Survey shows Cambodians increasingly concerned about country’s direction

Despite rapid economic growth, more Cambodians than at any time since 2004 feel their country is moving in the wrong direction, a new poll found. Corruption, deforestation, and economic issues top the list of concerns.

The nationwide survey, published by The Asia Foundation on Wednesday, December 10, shows that while 32 percent of respondents feel Cambodia is heading in a positive direction, a majority (59 percent) believes things in the Southeast Asian nation are going the wrong way.

Conducted between May 19 and June 9, and titled Democracy in Cambodia – 2014: A Survey of the Cambodian Electorate, the public opinion poll cites corruption (19 percent), deforestation, and economic issues (26 percent) as the main reasons for the increase in pessimism. The tangible results of infrastructure (27 percent) and economic growth (21 percent) are cited by those who believe the country is going in the right direction.

The representative survey is the organization’s third on democracy in Cambodia, a follow-up to polls conducted in 2000 and 2003 and is based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens aged 18 and older in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and the capital Phnom Penh.

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A spirit shrine for the children’s home

A new Spirit House at the SOC. Photo Phil Caldwell.

A new Spirit House at the SOC. Photo Phil Caldwell.

Following the recent tragedy at the children’s home, a new Spirit House was purchased and installed on the grounds. To Westerners these seem a unique aspect of SE Asian cultures (you’ll see Spirit Houses in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar also,) however just a few weeks ago I was thinking about these shrines, and their similarity to the shrines that pepper the Italian landscape – bringing a tangible reminder to passers-by of the spiritual aspect of life. I took several photos of these while on a recent holiday – my favorite being the modern shrine I saw in Corniglia on the Mediterranean coast. (Below.)

Spirit Houses are symbolic, and provide a “home” for restless spirits who may inhabit the location. Prayers and votive offerings help placate these spirits.

You may, or may not, have any deep spiritual beliefs yourself, but there is a lot to be said for any spiritual or social mechanism that helps us deal with our grieving. Each time we walk past these shrines we stop, maybe for just a second, and pay regard to those who have walked this land before us. Respect is a deeply held value in Cambodia.

shrine - corniglia, italy

Shrine in Italy – Corniglia. I was struck by the similarities of these forms of religious expression: giving a tangible daily reminder of our spiritual dimension.