Nine months ago (July 2012) I wrote an article about Sueno Relief, an LA-based organization dedicated to creating documentaries that highlight problems in developing countries. Sueno’s first documentary, Resilient Cambodia, would highlight Cambodia’s struggling arts scene 30 years after the Khmer Rouge nearly wiped it out.
The crew spent five weeks filming in October, and last week I caught up with them to learn new updates on the project.
A lot has changed in nine months- including the film’s title, the organization’s official name, and some of the film’s original focus.
Resilient Cambodia’s new name is Year 33. “Year 33 signifies 33 years since Pol Pot,” filmmaker Kathryn Lejeune said. “We want to acknowledge what happened in the past but we want to focus on what’s happening now, and show that [Cambodians have] come from nothing and this is where they are now.”
Thirty-three years after the Khmer Rouge fell, Cambodia is still culturally, economically, and socially reeling from the decimation. Year 33 chronicles how Cambodians are now using art to heal, move forward and progress.
The film focuses on three different artists- a dancer, a textile designer, and a painter- to show Cambodia’s art scene is growing and in need of recognition.
Nam Narim is a classical Apsara dancer and a contemporary dancer in Phnom Penh. Her mother and grandmother were also professional dancers. “Narim is really self-sacrificing and she gets all her strength through her art,” Lejeune said. “Her mother and grandmother were both classical Apsara dancers who survived the Khmer Rouge, [which is] incredible despite them being artists, when only 10 percent of [artists] survived. We have these amazing scenes of them all dancing together in this pavilion.”
Despite her passion for dance, Narim struggles to provide for herself and her family. She is currently taking English classes in pursuit of more gainful employment one day.
Chen Vanny works for a non-profit called IKTT in Siem Reap. IKTT is a completely self-sustainable textile business, and Vanny is responsible for creating the traditional designs in their weaves. Vanny’s work is also a family tradition- her mother and her grandmother were textile designers as well.
“She’s so adorable and just so happy to be doing what she is doing, and she really sees it as a good thing for women to do,” Lejeune said. “It’s a good job for [women] to make money and not have to resort to a lot of things that other women have to do in that country. She’s able to be independent and not rely on anyone else.”
Mao So Viet grew up in the small community of Battambang. Against his family’s wishes, he enrolled in the local Phare Ponleu Selpak art school and pursued his dreams of being an artist. While Viet’s artwork has shown all over the country, he was upset about his hometown’s failure to retain its talented artists- the majority of whom moved to Phnom Penh.
Viet now owns and runs the only Cambodian-owned art gallery in the country, Make Maek, in Battambang. His goal is to create a flourishing arts center there. He also dreams of creating an art community center for youth in Battambang.
“He really has a vision of where he wants to see Cambodia go, and where he wants to see art in Cambodia go. He’s very hungry to have the world recognize the potential of artists in Cambodia, because a lot of times, and he’s right to believe this, Cambodia gets skipped over,” Lejeune said.
Each of these three artists is looking to uphold traditions while struggling to create new traditions as well. “Let’s look at a positive path, let’s look at a sustainable path, and this is what it might look like if we follow the examples of these artists,” Lejeune said.
Year 33 was originally going to explore Cambodia’s clean water problem, showing how a lack of resources is one of the issues plaguing the art community there. This topic was later dropped, because it was too much content to place into a singular film.
In addition, Sueno Relief is now called Sueno Documentary Films. Lejeune said Sueno plans to keep followers invested in their characters’ lives with website updates, as well as resources on how to help.
We just want to “support this art revival because we really feel it has potential- if people were supporting this art revival in all the ways we’re mentioning in the film, we feel like that could be the savior of Cambodia,” Lejeune said. “Thirty three years: [Cambodia has] come a long way in some respects, and they have so much further to go in others. But we really want to focus on the fact that is art is something good that’s happening in that country.”
Hearing these artists’ stories and reading about Cambodia’s growing art scene makes me regret not experiencing it first-hand. But I’m really looking forward to seeing it documented in Year 33, and hopefully someday I will go back to check it out.
*Year 33 has an estimated release date of next year. For those in NYC- check out the upcoming Cambodian Arts Festival in April.