From The Cambodia Daily, May 15, 2000
Villagers Working With Fiber Optics
By Jody McPhillips
Rithy Panh heard that a telecommunications company was hiring rural
and rootless Cambodians to lay fiber optic cable across the country,
he knew he had to be there. The contrasts and tensions inherent in
the story were irresistible. Twenty-first century technology inching
across thousand-year-old rice paddies. Desperately poor people wielding
hoes to connect computers at the speed of light
was dramatically very interesting," said Rithy Panh, who spent
the first three months of 1999 filming the clash of cultures. The
resulting documentary, The Land of Wandering Souls, will
be screened Tuesday at the Reyum Gallery, at 6:30 PM. A second Rithy
Panh film, Bophana, will be shown tonight. The story of a
girl's life under the Khimer Rouge is narrated and subtitled in English.
On Wednesday, short films by Rithy Panh and a group of younger artists
will be screened.
Panh, who received an education in France after fleeing there in 1979,
will be at the gallery before and after the screenings to talk to
filmgoers about his work. The gallery, at House 47, Street 178, is
across from the National Museum.
Panh is an internationally'
accomplished filmmaker, whose feature films Rice People and
One Evening After the War garnered praise at the prestigious
Cannes Film Festival, held annually in France. Dividing
his time between France and Cambodia, his movies explore Cambodian
life at its most basic, presenting an unblinking look at rice farmers,
bar girls, ditch diggers, and refugees in a border camp while celebrating
the beauties of the Cambodian landscape and character.
says making the fiber optic documentary proved more challenging than
shooting his feature films. 'It was much more difficult" he said.
"When you're shooting a documentary, you don't know what will
happen, what people will say." At the same time, he said, "this
was a much richer experience for me. 1 have to live with [the subjects],
stay with them," which led to a far deeper understanding of their
lives, thoughts and dreams. He said he was touched by what he found,
and proud of his countrymen. 'These people, they are very poor. They
were nearly crushed by the Khmer Rouge. But they talk, they love,
they fight, they have dignity.....Some people think Cambodians don't
want to talk, that they are afraid to talk. But it is not true. They
have reflected about their condition. They under stand."
exchange in the film, for example, involves an educated man attempting
to explain to one of the workers exactly what the fiber optic cable
will do. He compares it to well-loved stories of magic eyes and magic
ears, enabling people all over the world to talk to each other and
even send photographs instantaneously. The laborer listens patiently
to the glowing talk of telecommunications and the Internet and then
smiles and lets the guy down easy. "I can't afford electricity,"
he tells him gently. "Sometimes, I can't even afford kerosene
for my lamp."
Panh said that during the filming, he and his crews lived and worked
closely with their subjects, and found their courage and resilience
uplifting. "I could not live the way they do. It is very hard,"
he said. But by spending weeks and months with them, he gains the
insight he needs to make a film that is true. “I try to feel
what they feel their happiness as well as their suffering." He
said it is important for a docuumentarian to listen to his subjects.
"And first, you must love them, be on the same level with them." Rithy Panh said
the film's title refers to the Buddhist belief that the souls of those
who die violently are doomed to wander the earth, until the proper
ceremonies allow them to enter the cycle of rebirth.
night, the Reyum film festival will show a series of shorter works
by the Atelier Varan, a group of younger film-makers who have studied
with Rithy Panh in recent years with the support of the film department
at the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture. The shorter films include:
I am a Girl Like the Others, by Chheng Savannah;
Chroum, by Roun Narith; Calmette, Building B, by Sam
Maly; Ary Has Left for the City, by Dy Sethy, I Have
Gone Away From the War, by Prum Mesar; and Rithy Panh's Van
Chan and The Tan Family, both subtitled in French. The
Reyum film festival, which is jointly funded by a grant from the Kasumisou
Foundation, is a low-key affair that organizers say may be extended
for several more days if mere is enough public interest. The gallery
can seat about 50 people comfortably. Screenings are free.
say the last major attempt to boost Cambodian films was the unfortunately
timed Southeast Asian Biennial Film Festival, which took place in
Phnom Penh in March 1997, the same weekend a grenade explosion killed
at least 16 demonstrators across from the National Assembly.