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.

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

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

Image

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.

 

 

 

An outstanding Cambodian documentary – Enemies of the People

Image

Investigative journalist Thet Sambath is a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post and over 10 years he went about interviewing victims and soldiers in search of why Pol Pot and his generals did what they did. After all, there is a rich collection of literature telling the story from the point of view of the victims, but the story from the Khmer Rouge point of view was greyed-out, even during the time of their reign of terror in the 1970s. It took more than a year before Pol Pot even revealed himself to the public – preferring to rule by secrecy until 1977.

Sambath is an amazing journalist who digs into the story in a characteristically Cambodian way: preferring not to be confrontational but to win the friendship and trust of those he interviews. I found his treatment of two soldiers, youngsters at the time they carried guns for the Khmer Rouge, particularly moving. At first the soldiers say they weren’t involved and cannot remember the details, but gradually the journalist takes them to the point where they realise that confessing what they did – one of the two men recalls throwing babies in the air and bayoneting them with the sword on the end of his rifle – is the only way to release themselves from the nightmares they have nursed for decades. The men weep with horror and shame at what they did. “What will I return as?” one asks rhetorically, recounting the rules of Buddhism.

Following a trail that emerges with each time he asks: “who gave your the orders? Why did so many people die in the killing fields?” Sambath eventually finds himself at the doorstep of  former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, Pol Pots’s right hand man.

Chea insists that the regime had to get rid of “enemies of the people” but he cannot adequately address the core fact: that those in power were simply executing everyday Cambodians. Who, if not these leaders, were the real enemies of the people?

Nuon Chea is a arrogantly proud man, deluded perhaps, but through the lens of Sambath’s camerawork still human. Not a monster, but a deeply flawed man who, ultimately, is arrested to face trial.

This is a stunning movie, and has won multiple prestigious awards since being released in 2011. One hurdle, it has had to overcome, is that the Cambodian Government decreed it was too sensitive to release in Cambodia. The producers were working last year to ensure that at least through DVD release it might be viewed by Cambodians themselves.

Watch the trailer – click here.

More on Khmer film click here.

A Killing Field Documentary – a model movie

Image

While I ponder on RUN – the new Cambodian Zombie movie, one other Khmer film I saw this year was the excellent though in some regards harrowing documentary The Missing Picture.  A 2013 Cambodian documentary film directed by Rithy Panh about the Khmer Rouge the movie screened to great acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize. The film was also selected as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.

The film is the personal account, by the director’narrator, of his family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge, and because there is no record – the missing picture theme – of what happened, the film maker uses clay models to ‘re-enact’ the story. There is something about the crude simplicity of those models that makes the story more powerful – more subject to the terrors of the imagination.

I saw the film with a friend in New Zealand, Chakara Lim, who is an energetic champion for the local Khmer community in my city, and I asked him after the film about his thoughts. Strangely, he said, he felt somewhat unmoved despite the fact that the details of the story – the years of starvation, of families being turned against themselves, of good people being brutally punished for showing acts of compassion – all these things rang true to his own experience.

We are both storytellers and we discussed this: concluding that the narrator remains a voice behind the camera and his detachment makes it hard to sympathise.

So mixed reviews here – but I’d recommend the movie if you can find it on DVD. The history of the Pol  Pot years is a story that needs sharing and consideration: it indelibly stains the landscape of the modern Khmer people.

Into cinema? See how a new Cambodian Zombie Movie makes its mark.