Still I Strive – Uplifting Cambodian Documentary

STILL I STRIVE

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!

Sinn Sisamouth and the golden age of Khmer pop

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The golden, liquid talent of Sinn Sisamouth has become a touchstone for memories of any Cambodian who lived before, and survived the horrifying Pol Pot years from 1975-1979.

When I became interested in in Cambodia, following a journey there in 2004, my search for Khmer music led me over and again to YouTube clips featuring Sinn Sisamouth. This clip (link here) is not untypical – a light pop melody that fuses western and Cambodian styles.

Every nation in the 60s had its own pop idols. Back then the recording business was highly localised and few artists – Elvis and The Beatles being rare examples – transcended the world stage. So within this context popular music in Cambodia adapted western music but combined this with its own traditions.

If you visit Cambodian nightclubs you’ll hear a dominant diet of hip hop, but the music that most fills the floor, still, is the traditional popular Romvong which is the music that drives the circle dance of the same name. These tunes, always sung in Khmer, feature a signature beat that belongs to the East, as well as keyboards and – sometimes, accordian which echos, I suspect, the French influence from the 1920s.

In the 1960s the move to guitar driven sounds led to adaptations of the US sound – including surf guitar, the Twist and the European classic romantic ballads such as Rain & Tears. (Modern version here.)  The up-tempo releases (See this clip featuring footage from a contemporary movie or this one also featuring contemporary clips) in the 60s were probably outweighed by the romantic romantic ballads.

Among the local pop stars Sinn Sisamouth was the giant. A congenial guy, he was vocally talented and also a prolific songwriter. I can’t over emphasise his status – to Cambodia he was Paul Simon, Andy Williams and Elvis all wrapped into one. His music, including dozens of duets with  female leads such as Ros Sereysothea (this clip captures the French influence) dominated the airwaves from the late 1960s through to the earl 1970s.

Then Pol Pot came to power and all promoters of anything vaguely western were rounded up, captured and tortured. Sinn Sisamouth was made to walk in circle, around and around until he collapsed and died of exhaustion.

Today thanks to YouTube and the patient curation work of American based Cambodians such as Darren Kham (Subscribe to his YouTube account) much of the music has been rescued and in many cases digitally restored so that the golden days of popular music, and the heart rending vocals of Sinn Sisamouth have been preserved.

Typical of the comments posted under his YouTube clips:

When I fell in love for the first time, it was like, everything is possible and everything is sweet and happy and awesome, and this song made my first love even deeper like an ocean and wider like the universe. But then, like everything in this world, it ends, though my memory of this song remained as wonderful as it was then.

Or simple memories of better times:

When I was little, I remember my parents listening to songs like this on car rides.

If you can, try and get hold of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten which traces the rock and roll era of Cambodian music.

One of the people quoted in the documentary is the lead singer for the modern group Dengue Fever, Chhon Nol. Dengue Fever represents an interesting phenomenon: the group is based in the USA and founded after their lead guitarist visited Cambodia and discovered the 60s pop sound. Well worth listening to: their songs such as Tiger Phone Card capture perfectly the well crafted Cambo-Pop sound of that era.

Today, pop music in Cambodia retains some of this same nostalgia. There is still a strong taste for romantic ballads, and remakes of the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his peers are not uncommon. I find it quite powerful when I read the comments on YouTube. People with scarred pasts find healing and hope, still, in Sisamouth’s music.

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Still I Strive – A Cambodian Movie worth checking out.