After attending the opening premiere and feeling like rock stars, the next week Mara, Pinkie and I watched the documentary "Le Sommeil d'Or ("Golden Slumbers") by French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou. Davy actually supplied Pinkie with the tickets which allowed the rest of us to attend in the first place. His film chronicled the lives of the directors, actors, and actress who made the “Golden Age of Khmer Cinema” possible. Through their art, these visionaries were able to create an outlet for millions of Cambodians desperately seeking to escape from the horrors of the civil war which was slowly encroaching upon their lives.
As powerful as the film was, the ending credits was perhaps the most jarring. It was dedicated to the memories of the men and women of the movie industry who were murdered by the Khmer Rogue. Screen-shot after screen shot of names. That’s when I realized that the amazing people featured in the film were but a small group of survivors who had to endure the unimaginable in order to escape a fate that so many of their colleagues and friends were not able to. It was a haunting yet inspiring look into how a nation’s artistic soul was snatched away and then slowly rebuilt from virtually scratch.
Cambodia’s Post-war National Narrative
It would be the pinnacle of arrogance for me to believe that through only spending five weeks in this nation, I am qualified or otherwise entitled to characterize what this nation’s story is. After all, only a country’s people can truly tell their nation's story.
Yet I cannot help but believe that Davy’s film captured the very essence of what I believe is a central theme of this nation’s postwar narrative. A nation which endured a “tragic sideshow” to the Vietnam War, followed by five years of unimaginable horror and tyranny, and then was rewarded with more war. A nation which has had virtually all of its artists, intellectuals, professionals, innovators, and civic leaders exterminated or exiled. And yet-a nation which has somehow managed to do the unthinkable. A nation which has been able to recover from the absolute brink, solely by drawing upon the resilience and labors of its people. As a Bangladeshi-American, I have heard this remarkable national narrative before.
Artists as Storytellers of National Narratives
Upon winning the latest edition of Arab Idol, Palestinian superstar and hero Mohammad Assaf defined revolutionaries as “not just the one carrying the rifle, it is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the axe of the farmer. Everyone struggles for their cause in the way they see fit. Today I represent Palestine, and today I am fighting for a cause through my art and the message I send out."
That is exactly what people like Davy and other filmmakers, actors, actresses, musicians, and artists in Cambodia and around the world are doing. They may not be struggling for independence or ushering revolutionary social and political change. Nevertheless, they are revolutionaries and patriots in their own right. Through their art, they have been exercising their awesome responsibility of showing to both their countrymen and the world what the real Cambodia is. They are bringing to life the nation’s glorious and ancient past, its hellish traumas, and its limitless future. They have the power to entertain, educate, and inspire all at once. They are the gatekeepers of their nation's cultural legacy and heritage, and the gatekeepers to our deepest emotions. They can be agents of change and social justice.
If that is not true patriotism-a genuine love for one’s country and utilizing one’s talents to serve fellow citizens-then I do not know what is.
A very special thanks to everyone who made the Memory International Heritage Film Festival possible, and my deepest gratitude to Pinkie for finding a way for me to experience the premier :-)
Disclaimer: All views articulated in this article are entirely the writer's own and are in no way reflective of any other individuals, institutions or organizations.