Asia Life

Cambodian Renaissance: A Conversation with the Director of Year 33

Cambodian art was devastated by the Khmer Rouge, but it’s bouncing back.

Jonathan DeHart

“To keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss.” This mantra, often repeated by the Khmer Rouge, encapsulated the regime’s philosophy of governance. More than three decades since the Khmer Rouge’s reign came to an end, the after effects of its time in power (1975-1979) are still felt in Cambodia, where some 2 million died under its rule, including 90 percent of the nation’s artists.

Yet prior to the Khmer Rouge’s culling of the nation’s population and heritage, Cambodia was in fact a creative regional hub. Given a people that created Angkor Wat, perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Still, it’s intriguing to note that in the pre-Khmer Rouge days Cambodia produced a crop of psychedelic bands who rocked their way across Southeast Asia. Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were at the forefront of this sonic ferment.

While it took the nation a few decades to start springing back to its feet – still an ongoing process – the few remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge are being tried for war crimes and the nation’s still-impoverished economy is gradually picking up steam, thanks in part to its agricultural strength. Cambodia’s artistic life has also begun to reemerge, as seen in the growing international reputation enjoyed by contemporary Khmer artists – on prominent display most recently at New York’s Season of Cambodia 2013.

The story of Cambodia’s creative rebirth captured the attention of filmmakers Kathryn Lejeune and Janna Watkins, who cofounded Sueño Documentary Films. Partnering with Creative Visions Foundation, the duo has produced a feature-length documentary, Year 33, the result of their exploration of Cambodia’s cultural rebirth. The title of the film refers to the 33 years that have passed since the Khmer Rouge ended its bloody campaign.

Lejeune recently spoke with The Diplomat about the devastation brought to Cambodia’s artistic life by the Khmer Rouge, the Year 33 documentary project, and the nation’s artistic resurgence.

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Kathryn_Janna_ProducersPlease put this in historical context a little bit. What happened to the 10 percent of the country’s artists who managed to live through the Khmer Rouge reign? I realize many were killed, but were some kept on to be used by the brutal regime in some way?

Many of the artists who survived the culling by the Khmer Rouge did so by hiding their identities. If someone learned that their neighbor in the camp was college educated or an actor, for example, they were very tempted to turn them in in hopes of being rewarded with some food.

Some traditional arts, such as ikat weaving, survived because they were considered pure and untainted from the outside world. However, families were intentionally split up and part of the wonder of Khmer ikat is that the patterns are all memory based, passed on from mother to daughter over a period of many years. As a result, this art form was very much interrupted and many ancient patterns and methods were tragically lost.

What about the actual works of art? Did the Khmer Rouge destroy much of Cambodia’s physical heritage in the same way that Mao’s gang wiped out much of China’s during the Cultural Revolution?

Before the unrest that swept over Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Cambodia was experiencing a “golden age”, with incredible films, music, and modern art pouring from a vibrant and innovative creative community. The Khmer Rouge sought out and destroyed any copy or work they could find along with libraries and ancient Buddhist temples.

Have you been in touch with any artists who survived the Khmer Rouge reign? If so, what did they share with you from their experience of living through the ordeal?

Em Theay, the grandmother of one of our main characters, was an Apsara dancer during the time of the Khmer Rouge regime. Apsara dance is thousands of years old, but closely related to the royal court. Because of this, many dancers were killed outright. Fortunately, Em Theay was able to convince the guards of her camp that she could work hard in the field and dance during breaks to keep spirits up.

The officials saw that people were in a better mood, and therefore could work harder when she danced so they let her continue. She told me she didn’t mind too much performing for the Khmer Rouge because it was only the dance that mattered, not the soldiers. There is a documentary about her life called The Tenth Dancer, as nine of ten dancers were killed and she was the tenth, who survived.

VannyTyingAmid the ongoing trial of former Khmer Rouge members, have any artists directly addressed the era in their work?

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There are many artists in Cambodia who have addressed the Khmer Rouge and their brutalities in their artworks, including painters, musicians, graffiti artists, and circus performers. However, I personally do not know of anyone who is directly addressing the current tribunal. There is still a need to tread lightly when referring to the government and to speak out in such a public way with art would be to invite significant risk.

(Vann Nath, who passed away in 2011, was a significant Cambodian artist who escaped the infamous Khmer Rouge S21 torture center, aka Tuol Sleng, and later painted the horrific scenes he witnessed there.)

How did you become involved in the Year 33 documentary project?

Originally, my co-producer, Janna Watkins, and I set out to explore the issue of access to clean water in developing countries. Our search led us to Cambodia, which has an interesting contrast of great access in the capital city and terrible water situations in the rest of the country.

A few months into pre-production research, though, incredible stories of an emerging art revival kept popping up and we could not get it out of our heads. From there, we contacted art galleries and organizations to learn about personal stories and we knew we had made the right decision.

(The trailer for the film can be viewed here.)

Who are the three artists covered in the documentary and what is a sampling of the subject matter of their works? What is it that they’re doing, which you explore in the film?

In Year 33, we meet three artists: Nam Narim, a classical and contemporary dancer; Mao Soviet, a painter and installation artist; and Chea Vanny, a traditional textile weaver. They each live in different cities in Cambodia and come from very different backgrounds.

SovietWorkshopNarim is working to preserve ancient dances while also distinguishing herself as an innovative contemporary choreographer. Soviet has covered many subjects, but a common theme is decrying the waste he sees in an increasingly modern society. Vanny is a member of Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), where she designs ikat textiles using only natural and sustainable materials – no chemicals, no plastics.

Throughout the film, we follow each of their work and their daily lives, giving an intimate glimpse of the people behind this emerging revival who are working quietly and sometimes at great sacrifice.

Does Cambodia have an “art scene” per se? Is there a modern art world with galleries showing edgy work, as can typically be found in major cities around the world today?

Cambodia’s art scene is cool! There is a lot going on all the time and I was continually struck by the originality and depth of what I saw. That being said, it is all on a small scale. So while there are galleries with edgy work, such as Romeet in Phnom Penh and Make Maek in Battambang, they are small and need the support of locals and visitors to be able to continue. Our goal with Year 33 is to increase awareness of what Cambodia has to offer and encourage people to step inside a gallery or catch a performance.

What would you say about Cambodia’s future art prospects?

I am hopeful about the future of Cambodia’s art scene, but the truth is there are many challenges that could keep the country from regaining its previous title of “the Pearl of Asia”. There is a distinct lack of art teachers, poor access to quality materials, very little government support, and few patrons. These issues all add to the normal struggles of an artist. However, all the artists I met are working from a place of love and their determination to further their craft is moving to see.