Social History of Cinema: Kampong Cham

How do people relate to the past? Specifically here, in Kampong Cham city, the provincial capital of the same-named province. Cambodia has many pasts and people who have swam across those eras have had many lives. Remembering can at times seem like sinking in the water, and if it’s murky, then there is not much to tell. Or they remember but the words are like knives, are like rivers of grief, and silence speaks the full weight of loss.

At Nokor Bachey pagoda in Kampong Cham – 2km from the town center, I’m sitting with my shoes off, like everyone else. It’s comfortable. There’s a breeze blowing the slightly tattered ends of sacred red threads that are piled together, waiting. Just like this grandfather’s stack of fortune telling cards that he will unwind for three teenage girls plying him for futures. This temple was partially built during the Angkor empire (pre-Angkor Wat) and then surrounded over time by newer structures during the colonial period. It’s been recently painted and renovated a good amount of times.

I’ve traveled with members of the RoungKon Project from Phnom Penh. They are young Cambodians, all younger than me, yet I shrink like a perpetual novice. Not that I don’t know what I’m doing. But I don’t know what I’m doing. We all want to know more about the past. But I’m never sure if they are as concerned with time travel in memory as I am. I don’t know if the knotted and mossy fabrics of memory weigh down their minds day in and day out. Like they do mine. But then again, it could all be a challenge of translation. I do my best to speak Khmer, but I fail it time and again, the expression of my mad-scientist like wanderings in my own thoughts.

I do want to ask the elders what they remember. One man, the fortune teller, in his eighties, told us that he couldn’t remember clearly any moments that he wanted to share with us about the past in Kampong Cham. He said he knows the history of the temple and the history of the Pol Pot era and what happened then, but it’s foggy. When asked about his life, where he grew up and what he did, it’s difficult. I think those kinds of questions don’t really make sense. Everyone, all the elders, laughed when we asked to record one man’s voice for the future. They seemed to feel like it was silly and a bit uncomfortable. So, that’s when I bring in the video. Because I’m never sure how to start a conversation about memory.

I had this theoretical idea to use cinema – old popular films – as a gateway. Also as an object. I hold my cell phone in my hand and play a 13 min video that has clips from about 11 old films – films made between 1962 and 1974 in Cambodia, written, produced, and distributed around the country. These are Khmer language films with Khmer actors, musicians, crew, all. Cinema has a vibrant and textured social history.

In some ways democratic and many ways exclusive in its reach, cinema speaks and holds people’s memories in unique ways. Then it became my interest to ask: why? Why did you remember like that? What and how do people remember when they hold this object for a little while?

People sometimes say that everything was lost after the Pol Pot time. It doesn’t mean that that is a truth, but speaks more to the severity of the shock, loss, and trauma of surviving. Yet, I wonder, because if they saw something that did survive, what does it mean to them? What does it feel like to then remember? Is that a cruel question?

We watched the Cambodian cinema clip together, me, Yury, and two old men in the temple. They recalled the famous stars’ names, their favorites. But this time, the elder man took most notice of the clothing and the dancing. The beauty in the details. Captivated by the comedy, the sounds of jokes and clips of songs. From the sounds of it, the elderly man hadn’t seen too many films, but definitely a couple and knew about them from advertisements, posters, songs, dances. From that social fabric that cinema creates.

When the clip finished, I asked him what feelings he had from seeing those clips. And he spoke at some length. But the way he remembered was uniquely his own.

Why does he remember only two cinemas in the city when there were actually four? (I didn’t correct him, that’s not the point.) Is it possibly because those two are older cinemas or more accessible for someone from the village? The largest cinema in town, the Mohaosrap Sihamoni is obviously the biggest – maybe it was also the most elite? Just ideas. I didn’t ask any of this but it is interesting to think about. Maybe the connection to certain cinemas over others would illuminate the texture of this social history and its shadows and disparities more than whether any one person had the ability to see the films or not. Obviously my basic first theories are all pretty wrong, but that’s kind of the point of guessing to begin with.

The elderly man had feelings of remembering happier times. But he spoke of dance, gestures, kindness, respectful language. A time when life held the details like he can see in the movies in the clips. He remembers when people wove beautiful designs and wore them proudly. They didn’t have televisions, and they went to the theater to see these new things. But the dancing. When people danced he felt so happy. Compared to today where he feels…almost out of place. He said that 1970 changed everything. That once the war had entered the country that changes happened constantly.

One of my theoretical guesses that I had coming into this space of memory was: would memories of the 1960s help us understand how people experienced modernity? I guessed that it would illuminate how people experienced it then.

Now, memory work reveals multiple modernities and the ruptures between them. No memorializing and no oral history will reveal that time of “modernizing” in Cambodia without first revealing this time of modernity and how people conceptualize their space in the present. So what we learn is just as much about today as it is then, because there is no space that is not lived in. No memory that is not walking in the present.

I didn’t ask the elderly man to compare the past to today, but that’s what the object of cinema and his memory asked him to do. To walk in both places at once. To again sit in the spaces of rupture and loss and pull at the strings of nostalgia and meaning that somehow have crossed unimaginable boundaries and obstacles.

The way people interact with these clips says so much about the social fabric of cinema. As a contrast, the man who is now the President of the Ministry of Culture in Kampong Cham teared up when we sat with these film clips together. He became so emotional saying, “Oh, I used to watch this one! I’ve seen this one!” He exclaimed and asked to watch it again, to have it for his own. Luckily it’s on youtube and he had the app on his phone so we could share it.

The man who grew up in a village interacted with the idea of stars and stories, but connected most with the costumes, the language, and the dancing and music. The experience of watching the film did not mean so much to him.

Does cinema create social cohesion? Or create a tableau on which social relationships once again become mapped? Does cinema betray nationalism even as it creates the necessary imagination for the thing itself to become true? For example, it doesn’t have to mean urbanism at all, but there’s a fascinating relationship between cinema and urbanism in Cambodia and it can help us reflect on what urbanism means to any community and the way that pop culture and urbanism relate. There’s a fickleness to both of those things. Such a thing that touches many lives in many ways that reveal the inequity of development and the sting of the new as it replaces the old.

Lastly, working in the memory obliterates the other. Maybe this is not true, but it should be. We time travel together, away from walls, away from floors and ghosts and unborn cinemaphiles. Memory is like a time travel through the membranes birthed with trauma. It’s not the myth of our lives. I don’t think. But there is much left to ask. Much left to wonder. How do people create the past?

Copyright Jessica Austin 2017

Disclaimer: I will happily share my thoughts and work, if asked and credited.


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