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.