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'Angkor’s Children' Director Stresses the Arts in Recovering Cambodia

'Angkor’s Children' is a film about Cambodia’s cultural and artistic renaissance told through the voices of three young Cambodian women. (Photo courtesy of film director Lauren Shaw)
'Angkor’s Children' is a film about Cambodia’s cultural and artistic renaissance told through the voices of three young Cambodian women. (Photo courtesy of film director Lauren Shaw)

[Editor's note: Film director, Lauren Shaw spoke with VOA's Jennifer Smith about her latest documentary, which highlights art as a form of cultural rehabilitation in Cambodia. 'Angkor’s Children' tells the stories of three young Cambodian women, who perform art from different generations in Cambodia’s history. These art forms include smot singing from the 5th century, acrobatics from the 1990’s, and rock n’ roll from today. Because the Khmer Rouge destroyed the vast majority of Cambodia’s cultural heritage through the extermination of their performers and academics, today’s artists provide a crucial link to Cambodia’s past. While the art represents the fortitude of Cambodia’s culture throughout history, 'Angkor’s Children' also exemplifies how art can unite and strengthen a country as it progresses into the future.]

VOA Khmer: How did you first get interested in Cambodia?

Lauren Shaw: In 2007, we were going to Vietnam. I had always wanted to go to Hanoi, and we went to Hanoi and my partner said to me, “Let’s go to Angkor Wat.” And, I was a child of the 60’s. I was really part of the anti-war movement in the United States. So, the visit to Hanoi was almost a wonderful dream come true that we were going to finally visit this country that we almost destroyed. And so, when Paul mentioned Cambodia, or Angkor Wat, I had no idea. I didn’t even know what Angkor Wat was. All I knew was that Cambodia was filled with landmines and that we probably couldn’t go there because of the State Department list. And of course, we went. And we went to Angkor Wat. And, being a photographer at the time, you know, Angkor Wat was fantastic, but I really wanted to see the people. And, the people is what really was… it was so dramatically different than Vietnam because of what had happened to their infrastructure, the genocide, you know, what Pol Pot had done was so clearly visible throughout the country. You didn’t see older people. And the people were so physically beautiful and so loving that I realized that I needed to do something with my art. I had to do something. So, I mean, I was a teacher my whole life. I had to do something that I felt made a difference. So, we did a small film called 'A Drop in the Bucket'. There’s a website for it called And it’s about the necessity for clean water and wells in Cambodia. And we made this film about how one goes about, as a world citizen, being responsible and helping build wells. Not just by writing out a check, but doing your homework and making sure the people are empowered and making sure the wells are tested. And the film kind of went viral. And, we built like 500 wells. We decided we were going to do a feature on water. And, when we went back we just decided we needed to tell the story of contemporary Cambodia. That it was so much the 'Killing Fields' that the country has been known for. But it was more important to us that the world knows now about how to, about recovery and healing from genocide. So, we decided that we would tell the story of contemporary Cambodia. Fifty percent of the population is under 21. And then, we certainly didn’t go out with this intention, but it ended up being a film about women, and women leadership, and then certainly the arts, that the arts was the way to heal a nation.

VOA Khmer: Why focus on art and culture in Cambodia?

Lauren Shaw: Because it was under the radar of the government. We didn’t want to make a political film. It’s still a pretty repressive government. We didn’t want to make a film, you know, attacking the government in any way. But, Cambodia has an incredibly rich cultural heritage beyond Angkor Wat. I mean, certainly Angkor Wat is one of the world heritage treasures, but beyond that there was dance, there was music. It was a fairly highly evolved culture that was completely wiped out with Pol Pot, taking the country back to the year zero. And, even in the 60s, rock ‘n roll was thriving in Cambodia. It was really a very rich, rich culture, and it was gone. And, we decided that we met a couple of artists and we just decided that art was under the radar. We could possibly share our story through these girls who are reviving the arts. And, then, of course we connected to Cambodian Living Arts, which is – and Phare Ponleu Selpak – which are the absolute quintessential message of what we were trying to do in our film. It just was serendipitous that we met. These two organizations that were trying to bring cultural identity back to the people, especially the young people.

VOA Khmer: Organizations?

Lauren Shaw: Phare Ponleu Selpak, which means, “brightness of art”, and Cambodian Living Arts. And, then, just to, you know, this is to me an important point for audiences to know when I show the film and when we do a Q and A, and certainly when we were at the Smithsonian. To let the audience know that, I wanted to, this was, again, not totally intentional until we laid it out and I saw what I had. And, I realized that I had a smot singer who represents 5th century Cambodia, which is one of the oldest traditions of Buddhist chanting and it is throughout the world. Smot is, Buddhist chanting, and not just in Cambodia. But, smot is used for funerals, primarily, but it also is a way of remembering the dead. So, you hear it throughout the country. Like, almost the call to prayer. And you hear it on cassettes, and recordings. So, Srey Pov represents pre-Angkor Wat, actually. And, Phare, or Poonam, represents Phare Ponleu Selpak, which is a reconstruction or the revival of the first revival of the arts right after the Thai refugee camps emptied out in the early 90’s. And, for the survivors, created the school in Battambang to help children deal with the trauma of war. So, she [Poonam] kind of represents this middle period. And, Messenger Band is contemporary Cambodia. Although they’re not profound artists, they use music as a way to get their message across. So, and they love singing and they love the tradition of singing. And, their tunes are 1960 tunes, but the lyrics are contemporary lyrics. They’re all former garment workers. And so they’re the human rights. They’re using their songs to sing songs of human rights.

VOA Khmer: Why focus on three women?

Lauren Shaw: Well, we first met Poonam, who was the most charismatic from the get go, and so determined. I’ve been a feminist at heart. I mean, I am fundamentally a feminist, but, I didn’t want to set out to make a feminist film. I really didn’t want this to be a film that was just for women. But, certainly when Nicholas Kristoff and his wife of 'Half the Sky', that book came out, it was heralding the importance of these underdeveloped nations and the importance of women as leaders and how women have not been honored by their own culture and society. They’ve been, you know, in Cambodia it’s referred to as, “Men are gold and women are white clothes. So, women can be soiled and washed. But, men are gold.” It’s an old Khmer saying. So, once we met Poonam, it seemed to us, oh my god, what if we somehow pursued this and found other women. And then, of course, Messenger Band was so perfect. So that we could not only tell the story for other post-conflict nations of how art can be used to heal, but that also these women are really stepping out of their traditional roles and raising the bar for women all over the world in the sense of, you know, in Cambodia you’re not supposed to open your legs, and have contact with men. So, to do acrobatics goes against the culture, but you know certainly Poonam is a world star now.

VOA Khmer: “You can’t understand modern Cambodia without understanding the revolution.” Why not?

Lauren Shaw: I think that what the Khmer Rouge accomplished in five years is horrific. And, I didn’t live through the holocaust, but being again a child of the 60s, just watching this unfold in a way beyond. I mean, Pol Pot happened because of our [United States] government. I mean, certainly. I mean, there was carpet bombings, Kent State – I don’t know how old you are, but Kent State happened as a result of announcing that we’d been doing these covert bombings along the border of Cambodia. And, Lon Nol was put in as a puppet prime minister, for us. And, so, the stage was set for revolution, but no one believed that there would be such a diabolical revolution. And, it emptied the cities literally in one day. I mean, emptied the cities by telling, announcing that the Americans were coming, and you’re going to be safe and you’ll be able to come back. So, literally the cities emptied out. Every major community emptied out in almost 24 hours, and were sent, as she said, to the countryside. And then, what happened was so horrific. So, to understand what the country went through in five years, and what it is now. And, how it’s going to take probably another generation to really – I mean, you have a prime minister, Hun Sen, who was a former Khmer Rouge, who then became neutral, but he has been in power for 32 years. And, he’s being challenged for the first time. He has been challenged forever, but for the first time with momentum from an opposition party. So, things are changing, but it’s so slow. To understand contemporary Cambodia you have to understand everything they lost. And, not only everything that they lost, but what they had. So, the revolution was really targeted towards educators, doctors, artists, lawyers, anybody that was professional, anybody that wore glasses was murdered. So, it was really the idea that nothing was left. There was no mentorship. These young girls, they come from families of domestic violence because of the trauma of their parents. They’re the first generation removed from the genocide. In other words, their parents, some of them survived, and then they were born in the aftermath. I don’t know if that answers your question. I hope that answers your question.

VOA Khmer: How do the girls’ stories represent contemporary Cambodia?

Lauren Shaw: Because Cambodia Living Arts, which is such a, you can just take a look at their website, just a huge organization. Arn Chorn-Pond who’s in the film, founded Cambodia Living Arts. He was a child of the war. He was captured by the Khmer Rouge. He survived by playing the flute and playing military songs for the Khmer Rouge and then escaped and ended up in a Thai refugee camp, and then was adopted by an American, Dr. Peter Pond, a minister. And, then he went back at 18 to find his flute teacher. And, with the partnership of World Education and other organizations he founded Cambodia Living Arts, which was the idea of bringing on older masters that had survived. He founded the organization on the back streets. They were, you know, some of them were just derelicts, and he did find them, some of them. And, he came from an art family, too. His parents were both opera singers from Battambang, and they were both murdered during the Khmer Rouge. And so, Srey Pov really represents the revival of traditional arts, and it’s huge. She’s a model for many young girls. She's been so successful. Who are trying, they’ve got to make a living. So, the idea that you have this young generation certainly connected to YouTube and Facebook. That’s not all of Cambodia, for sure. The youth, these are artists. And, Phare Ponleu Selpak and Poonam, they travel around the world, and they’re not an entertaining circus, although they’re entertaining. But, they tell their − they tell stories. So, their performances are dramatic stories of who they are – children of survivors or children of, you know, they’ll talk about their country. They are coming to the states in the fall to do a story about contemporary rock in Cambodia called Khmer Medal. So, she really represents, again, this young vibrant group of artists that have really been taught by these surviving masters, or in the case of Phare, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who was taught by the French in the refugee camps to use art as a way to heal. And then, Messenger Band is, they’re garment workers. It’s 80 percent of the employment in Cambodia. And, they are unbelievably oppressed and mistreated and disrespected. So, any young girl who’s not college educated is in the garment factory. They also sing songs for sex workers because sex workers are legitimate. They need – it’s not sex trafficking, but all over Southeast Asia, it’s hard to believe, but it is an occupation – and they need to be protected and they need lawyers and they need health care, but that’s how they make a living. So, they sing songs for farmers. And, they have a huge youth movement of young active garment workers who have been protesting in the streets for many years. And, just recently there was a giant demonstration last year where Hun Sen brought out tanks and killed six demonstrators. So, they are really this contemporary community doing and practicing the arts.

VOA Khmer: Why is this documentary significant or important for Cambodia?

Lauren Shaw: Because it brings pride to the country. It makes them, you have no idea, we traveled for three weeks in January showing the film all over Cambodia. And, we showed it to the expat community, we showed it to Rithy Panh, who was nominated for an award for his film about the genocide. But, the most moving was to show it to the youth. And, at one screening we had 150 kids from Build Bright School. And this one girl got up in her little class uniform at the end and she was crying and said, “I want to speak in English.” She said, “I love my country. I love my country, but we need to heal. And, thank you for this, it means so much to us to hear this and to see these models, these girls. They’re inspirational.” So, everywhere you go people are so grateful that we’re telling a story other than the killing fields. Because that’s what the country has been known for. You know, in I don’t remember what year, 19… I saw it maybe in the 70's, the 'Killing Field' with Sam Waterston. And he won the Academy Award for it. And, it’s a true story about a journalist in Cambodia who leaves and so, you know, his partner who’s Cambodian gets left behind because they can’t get him out. And he’s haunted by the fact that he left him. He got his family out, but he left him, Dith Pran. And, he finally gets him out. Finds out that he’s in a refugee camp and he brings him to New York, and he becomes a New York Times reporter. It’s an incredible story. And, because it was this unbelievable film people knew about Cambodia and of course, you know, at the end of the Vietnam War, the horror, you know, that ended up in Cambodia. But, Pol Pot, the revolution I mean, he shut down the country. No one knew what was really going on. It was very, very closed. And not until the Vietnamese came in did the extent of the devastation of what the Tuol Sleng and the photographs of the torture and the stories. And so, every survivor has written a book and every film maker has done a film. 'Sothis' is a film that’s not about the killing field. This is a film about hope. This is about promise. This is about the future. And, it’s also about the now, the struggle of now.

VOA Khmer: Why is this documentary important for the global audience?

Lauren Shaw: I think, for me, because – what’s going on in Darfur, what’s going on in Syria, what’s gone on in Rwanda – when these massacres happen, I mean, just in Syria, these major museums were just devastated and destroyed by ISIS. How will we ever bring that back? Or, let’s take Nepal, the earthquake, which wasn’t done through horror but a natural disaster. But, you have pagodas that have just been flattened. And maybe they’ll be reconstructed, but the documentation of those photographs are important for young people to know what their country was, and what it looked like, and the same thing when you have a country that’s been decimated by the opposition. And, you know, performers, and writers and, I mean look what went on in Cuba, I mean, you know – even though I’m so pro-Cuba – it just, Cuba was just decimated initially. I mean, it’s coming back but even though I did support Castro – but still, the artists, if you were gay, you were silenced. If you were gay and you were a writer or a dancer, you were silenced. So the idea that in post-traumatic, you know, countries where there’s been conflict, and, in rebuilding a nation, I think, for cultural identity, art is probably the most accessible way to start rebuilding an identity that is non-partisan and you know, is for everyone. It’s our soul. You know, imagine if all the artists were killed in the United States – musicians, artists, writers – where would we be? So, I think this film speaks volumes beyond that. It’s for the world to see. The reason it’s so dramatic to me is because of the genocide. But, that was Cambodia’s trauma which will take decades to recover.

VOA Khmer: What are you hoping this documentary will accomplish?

Lauren Shaw: Well, for one, our first initiative is to get it in every school in Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge is not spoken of or taught very much, very marginally now, and for students to understand, especially students in the universities, as well as those in the countryside. The students in the university, they want to be lawyers, doctors, politicians, and so for them, art is not celebrated as much. So, for them to see this is as a huge eye opener because once they realize art is, or you know, artists are their ambassadors to the world. And, for the countryside it brings such pride and such hope because the message, whether it’s through body, whether it’s through Smot, whether it’s through song, is a message of hope and promise. And, to see women out there, to see a young beautiful smot singer, it’s usually a recording. I mean, you know, Srey Pov is a phenomenon because not only is she beautiful, but she has got the most extraordinary voice. We brought her to the United States, and at first when we were editing the part of smot, everybody around me that didn’t really know her or smot were saying, oh my god, I’m not sure the western audiences are going to like smot. Well, I can’t tell you how people have been. It’s like Gregorian chanting. It’s, it is just so moving to hear smot sung by this young woman. So, she’s invited by communities around the world because of the Cambodian diaspora to sing smot in Australia, in France, and Germany, and United States. It’s just, and Phare performs around the world, as well. Because of Phare, the money really came from the French. And, I think the other thing is that the importance of this is that, it’s important that none of this could have happened without side money. But, the whole idea, I think, of restoration, human rights, development, has got to be leaving the community in tact so that it can be sustainable. So, they can, so the arts can be sustainable. So they don’t need an NGO to make a living, that they can create organizations, you know. They can make films. They can write books. They can do performances. They can be art administrators around the world. Not just these women. But art can be an economic− it can have economic impact. The World Bank, and it’s very didactic, I should send it to, you, but the World Bank just did a 60 page report on the power of art in economic development around the world. It’s just, it was just, Oxfam just sent it to me and it was just amazing to read. Like, oh my god, I can’t believe this is coming from the World Bank. So, my hope is that people will see this film and recognize the power of art in their own country to rebuild their cultural identity in countries that have really lost or struggled and forgotten, caught up in contemporary western entertainment, that they look back to their culture as something unique and authentic.

VOA Khmer: Where is the documentary being shown?

Lauren Shaw: Well, it’s been shown at festivals around the United States. Everywhere, you name it. We’ve been in festivals – we weren’t in Sundance, and we weren’t in Toronto, but you know, we’ve been in every other one. And, festivals are great, but if you don’t get a broadcaster/distributor then it’s just sort of a one shot. It’s great because the film community sees it, and that’s great, but we’re, we’ve gotten one offer from a European distributor. Now, we’re trying to get a contract with someone in the United States. We want it to go into schools. We want it to be an education tool as well. So, we’ve been partnering with World Education and now we’re working with Oxfam and maybe Facing History. They’re out of Boston and they’re a huge national organization – I suppose international – that started with the Holocaust and has created a curriculum that goes into the classrooms. So, we, we’ve been showing this film to schools all over. We have a project in the fall of hitting colleges with Southeast Asian programs. So, we want it to be seen way beyond festivals. I mean, that’s all fun, but we want it to be a tool that can be shown and is kind of timeless. That it could be shown− we just showed it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A film-maker came up to me who I really, really respect, and she said this film was so inspirational. It makes me want to, you know, she’s from Venezuela, and she said, I just want to take it to my country because it’s going through so much turmoil now.

VOA Khmer: Upcoming projects?

Lauren Shaw: Well, we are about to leave for Tanzania on June 8th to start another project. I just heard that the Burundis are streaming into Tanzania. There’s a coup going on in Burundi, and there’s an outbreak of cholera. So, I’m hoping we’ll still go. We have a Skype call this Monday. But, our plan is to go to Tanzania and to start another project called 'Fit for Life'. It’s another center for very poor kids in Dar es Salaam, outside Dar es Salaam. And, we have one character in mind who has gotten off the streets. Her friends are a gang, in gangs and there are gang wars and prostitutes. She’s 17 years old, and she has found a way to get out of being on the street. And, we don’t really… we’re just going to explore to see if there’s a story. So, we’re going for two and a half weeks to Dar es Salaam on June 8th. And, what’s really interesting about this story, or the possibility of this story, is that two teachers from Phare Ponleu Selpak, from Cambodia, had been working with this group in Africa, and that’s how we heard about it. And, so our fantasy is that somehow this young girl who is now 17 and has become an instructor at this school will go to Cambodia to work with the school there. I don’t really know what the story will be. I have this idea of maybe telling her story and a parallel story of a friend of hers who maybe didn’t make it off the street.

VOA Khmer: How did you find the girls? Anything else?

Lauren Shaw: It was through networking and a lot of groundwork. I think one thing is that the biggest challenge in the, that I could say that this – you know, I moved to Cambodia to finish the film and spent five years shooting it on and off, two and three times a year flying to Cambodia. And then, I teach for a living. I’m a professor at Emerson College in Boston in the visual and media arts department. And, I’ve been trained as a photographer. And, then I got in, and I’ve always been about storytelling and visual storytelling and documentaries has always been my work. I mean, I have, if you look at the bottom of my email, there’s all the websites of my projects. The biggest challenge in all of these projects is building trust. You have to build trust. You know, I’m a westerner. I’m white, you know, and, I’m going to these countries and I have to remember that’s who I am and I’m not Cambodian. I’m not Tanzanian. And, I need to get the story right. I need to really get their story even though it might be my point of view or this is the way I want to edit it. And so, I’m proud that this film is really the girls’ story, that this film could not have been made without their friendship and their trust. It just couldn’t have been made.