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:

Cambodia’s Curse – a timely book by a top level journalist

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January 2013 and Cambodia is in a political crisis. I’ve stayed clear of the demonstrations in Phnom Penh which have been in part a protest about unjust wages paid by the fashion industry sweatshops in Cambodia, but to a larger extent have reflected a bottled-up anger in the face of too many years of Government corruption under the governance of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister.

Joel Brinkley is no stranger to Cambodia’s situation having first reported on the desperate refugee crisis in 1980, bought to the world’s attention by the landmark movie The Killing Fields.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2011
“As a young reporter, Brinkley won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his coverage of the Cambodian refugee crisis. Returning to the region 30 years later, Brinkley – now a professor of journalism at Stanford – chose his subject well…[he] admirably…demonstrates that Hun Sen’s administration has been a disaster for many Cambodians.”

In his more recent book, Cambodia’s Curse, Brinkley traces the emergence of post-Pol Pot Cambodia and he is frankly aghast at what he sees. It takes very little scratching to uncover corruption and an abuse of power at every turn – whether it is in land development (and displacement of farmers,) or the unreliable justice system where the rich and powerful can, it seems at will, circumvent justice through connections or simple exchanges of money.

The broad picture leaves Brinkley pessimistic, and he spends much of the book tracing why the situation is so bad; drawing on cultural and historical strands in an attempt to explain the deep-seated and systemic corruption. The book also serves as a powerful, and easily readable recent history of Cambodia.

Joel Brinkley is careful in his quest to build his argument. He has been a professor of journalism at Stanford University since 2006 after a 23-year career with The New York Times. There, he served as a reporter, editor and Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent. At Stanford, Brinkley writes an op-ed column on foreign policy that appears in about 50 newspapers and Websites in the United States and around the world.

While published in 2011, and therefore quite up to date, it would be interesting to hear Brinkley’s take on events since the 2013 elections in which:

  • For the first time in recent electoral history massive 50,000 person anti-Government protests took place and anti-Government sentiment was overtly expressed.
  • Hun Sen’s majority was significantly diminished. Independent reports raise flags about the clean-ness of the elections with more votes in doubt (voters disallowed, double voting and other problems) than the margin of victory.

These have helped fuel a much more vocal anti-Government sentiment since the elections, and the response by the Government, to openly fire (and kill) protesters has brought international condemnation.

Brinkley, for his part, is not fully convinced that international assistance for Cambodia is all that effective. He isn’t impressed with UN driven aid to Cambodia (much aid money goes unaccounted,) and his feeling is that it props up a bad Government rather than contributes to social justice.

Well worth reading and reflecting on.

For more about social justice and the growth of the Cambodian economy – click here.

And two other book reviews that may be of interest to you: Destination Cambodia, a Travel Writer’s take on modern Cambodia and A History of Cambodia by David Chandler.

Book Review – Destination Cambodia

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Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.

Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’

Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.

He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”

Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.

The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.

That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”

For two more book reviews:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia

Traps in the rice fields.

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“What are these?” I asked as I entered Mouencheat’s house up the ladder to the main room, raised on stilts above potential floodwater levels.

“Those are traps for frogs.”

In fact frogs are a common supplement to the diet, as they are throughout Asia. In the wet season (May to July) children are sent into the rice fields and streams to catch frogs either by hand or by trapping. The gill traps, pictured, can catch up to 8 frogs in an evening, and a typical household – as this one is – may have between 5-15 of these traps.

Frogs are served either dried and on sticks , or stuffed and grilled in a dish known as Kangkeb-bauk.

Election irregularities in Cambodia – here’s the report.

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What kind of nation is this young Cambodian going to experience as an adult? In 2005 one foreign critic said there were three main problems to be addressed: “Corruption, corruption and corruption.” A new report of the 2013 elections comes to similar conclusions.

While Thailand is getting a lot of media attention over its political upheavals – neighbouring Cambodia has also been in political turmoil since the recent General Elections which saw the return of the Hun Sen Government – albeit chastened with a sharply reduced majority.

At least that was the official result, but the opposition Sam Rainsy party continues to orchestrate protests and demands for a rerun, and this time a fair election.

Are they exaggerating? Well here is the report conducted by a multi-party watchdog group. Their verdict: that there were irregularities (disallowed votes, duplicate voting etc) that in total add up to more than the electoral majority of the Hun Sen Government. In other words there is the probability that thanks to these misdemeanors and irregularities the outcome may have been different.

The Joint-Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections authored by The Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) appears well researched and quite independent.

A blog I wrote just after election day. Was it over-optimistic?

Romvong – the Khmer Circle dance

Rom Vong - the Khmer Circle dance

I took this photo at a wedding I attended in 2011. I’m always a bit shy in these circumstances – I didn’t know either the bride or groom, and so I kind of retreated behind my camera and took in the atmosphere which, in the large Siem Reap reception room was really noisy – with families and friends seated at round tables, shouting and laughing over the din, and competing noise-wise with a live band up on stage.

Some music was western and fairly karaoke in style, but the music that gets everyone on the dancefloor is the local Romvong style.

It is distinctly Cambodian, though the arrangements – at least to my ears – have elements of French folk music as well. Perhaps there was a fusion at least in the choice of instruments and sounds, during the French colonial period of much of the 20th Century.

In an any case the distinct rhythm gets everyone up on the dancefloor and cheerfully moving en-masse in a slow circle each person moving their hands gracefully.

“Ramvong dance has been performed in Cambodia for as long as anyone can remember,” says Wikipedia. “Both Khmers and other ethnic groups like Phnong, Krung, Tompuon and Prou people have performed this circular dance style since ancient times.”

The music has a languid beat, and is underpinned by steady bass guitar. The melody is provided by vocals and woodwind while a wooden xylophone, usually via a modern keyboards, provides much of the Khmer texture. Have a listen to a typical example.

As I stood on the sidelines total strangers waved at me, inviting me to join the circle, and eventually I did so, feeling uncomfortable at first: the only white guy in the room. But soon I felt part of the throng, no longer the individual but a part of a community.

See also: More on Khmer Music