Cambodian Film

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2004 - Little known outside Cambodia is a French-Khmer documentary film-maker named Rithy Panh, whose work recently was shown at a film festival in Phnom Penh.

Possibly his most inspired work featured in the three-day event was "Land of the Wandering Souls," a film that follows a family who has accepted a job digging ditches and laying fiber-optic cable for a telecommunications company.

With a tender and at times political touch, the film shows Cambodians on the edge of abject poverty -- and might have some impact on the country as a whole.

The movie was filmed over the course of several months. It follows a crew of nomadic families who lay cable and earn roughly $13 for every 25 meters they dig.

In one scene, a crew leader gives the workers an elaborate lecture on fiber-optic cable. He calls it a "magic ear" and a "magic eye" that can transport information around the world.

After the speech, one of the workers laughs, and looks the crew boss in the eye.

"I don't even have electricity," he says simply. "How can you expect a poor man like me to understand this?"

Scenes like this had a particular resonance among the educated, employed people in Cambodia's capitol, who know little about the country's predominately rural population.

After watching the film, local student Lon Nara said it took him by surprise.

"The most surprising is the living conditions," he told me, as people milled out of the small gallery where the festival was held. "People in Phnom Penh, they don't know the real life -- the real life of their own people. This kind of film can prick their conscience, you know?

"In Cambodia, we say that before, you were a worm, but now you become a butterfly. Don't forget the worm."

In another scene, a family of workers goes to see a monk to ask advice. Instead of counselling them to accept their fate, the monk grows increasingly political.

He speaks of injustice done to the poor in Cambodia, especially those who lived through war.

"You fought for your country," he says, "But now you are left alone."

Another capitol dweller, Ly Daravuth, said scenes like this should be shown all around Cambodia, instead of the programs usually watched on television.

"In Cambodia today, there's only -- basically, on television -- soap operas. And such a documentary, I think it's really close to people."

Ly Daravuth co-directs the small art gallery where the film festival was held. He said a small group of poor Cambodians gathered outside the gallery to catch a glimpse of the movie.

"I think many people were quite interested," he told me. "They laughed. Because as you observed, it's quite funny. But not -- it's a horrible, terrible subject, but you know, it's rare that people get the return of their own life on a screen: 'Jeez, this is me.'

"And I think it's the first step of reflection. It's a challenge to show the people who are in the same condition that maybe it's not normal. It's not a joke. It's real life."

Peppered throughout the film are images of cable, at once a symbol of oppression and progress. Director Rithy Panh studied film-making in France. He says he hopes the film will inspire Cambodians to make change.

I talked to him as the gallery readied to close down for the night.

"I think if a lot of Cambodians can see this movie, maybe they can restore some compassion. If the film helps them restore some solidarity between rich and poor, it is a dream, maybe."

By the end of the film, the crew bosses leave in the middle of the night without paying the families. One family ends up going home to their shack in the country worse off than they were before.

In a country that for so long has known nothing but struggle, it is a tale that no doubt will resonate among its people.

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