Great progress on childrens home


Up on the roof. The two new dormitory rooms at the children’s home are almost complete.

Excellent progress has been made on the extensions to Savong’s home for children in the Bakong district near the school. The roofing is nearly completed on the new dormitory rooms, though in the last few days progress has been slow thanks to a dramatic turn in the weather. The wet season seems to have arrived in earnest.

Almost all the required money has been raised – and a big thank you to the Tasmanian connection for raising  $US6980. Funds have also come in from elsewhere, taking our total toward the initial $8500 target – though we can do with more money in order to replace the somewhat leaky tin roofing on the original building.  Got a spare $100 or two?

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Still I Strive – Uplifting Cambodian Documentary


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!

Guide for Voluntourists – An Ethical Compass


Enrolment day 2011. This mother came to the school to ask questions and ensure the school could help her son. Two days later she came back with the website address for a books in schools program. One that I had been unable to find on the net. I love this sense of community involvement.

While debate swirls around Twitter about the pros and cons of voluntourism I thought I’d search for a constructive document to refer to. A good platform for thinking about the issues has been prepared by a group called TIES – The International Eco-Tourism Society. And their objective is to provide an ethical compass both for operators (come on our amazing orphanage tour!) and for tourists who are thinking about the ethical pros and cons.

Click here for their 24 page PDF: Guideline for voluntourists.

Today I’ve been quite busy responding to Twitter criticisms levelled at orphanages in general – and it is no medium in which to have a debate. But it is clear that there are naysayers out there who find it much easier to find fault (but surely the children should be with their parent.  Er, not if there’s domestic violence.) but not so easy to come up with positive, practical ways of helping the poorest Cambodian families and their children.

I don’t mind any such debate. I’m glad that NGOs are being held to higher account though I find some of the critics’ arguments quite risible or over-simplistic. (Money isn’t the issue…we should do what’s best…) Hmmmn. If only money wasn’t an issue.

But at the root of the discussion, on both sides, there beats a common heart – and that is one that cares for the children of Cambodia. If you’re planning to visit, do read up on these issues.

Some guidelines:

  • Deal with licensed, reputable NGOs.  Ignore those that tout for your visit.
  • Expect to be asked for photo ID. Don’t just walk in.
  • Plan to make a long-term difference – ask yourself how you might do this.
  • Work with children only in the presence of other adults.
  • Do your homework. There’s an good argument to say that many of us could reduce our negative footprint simply by sending money to a good cause. So ask yourself – am I making a difference by being here?

For more about volunteering see also:

Click here:  A new policy at Savong’s organisation: designed to raise the bar.