Boston Globe
by Karen Campbell

Beyond Killing Fields, Dance Endures

"If you know the culture, you know the heart of a country." So believes Proeung Chhieng, dean of the School of Dance at Cambodia's University of Fine Arts, and perhaps nowhere is that claim more evident than in Cambodia, where music and dance is the countries lifeblood.

The powerful and poignant new documentary "Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia," explores how Cambodians in the United States and in their native land are attempting to rebuild their culture after the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into "killing fields" that wiped out nearly a quarter of the country's population, including 80-90 percent of its dancers and musicians.

When the communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge took over the Southeast Asian Country from 1975-1979, they abolished religion, education, and culture in an attempt to wipe out any vestiges of the pervious monarchy. In effect, they turned the country in one vast slave labor camp, torturing overworking, starving, and executing nearly two million people.

Because the country's cultural tradition was largely oral, the death of master dancers, musicians, and teachers meant the loss of priceless traditions. However, as presented in Janet Gardner's compelling documentary, Cambodians are fiercely and proudly determined to restore their cultural identity. The film chronicles some of the more inspiring efforts, including those of the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, where an estimated 30,000 Cambodians have settled, making Lowell the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States, behind only San Diego. The film is a tribute to survival and rebirth.

The film follows three generations of dancers dedicated to the acrobatic role of the monkey, the only male role in Cambodian dance. For Thavro Phim, dancing the role has helped him deal with the loss of his family during the Pol Pot regime, enabling him to connect with his personal history and the cultural traditions of his country. For 13-year-old Cambodian-American Samnang Hor, one of the Angkor Dance Troupe's rising starts, the dance is a way to embody and share a past he is just now coming to understand. For the few dancers who survived during the Khmer Rouge, by either keeping their identity a secret, or using the monkey's charming blend of magic and mischief to appeal to their captors, reviving the tradition is a testament of freedom.

The film juxtaposes touching interviews with disturbing news footage from the 1970s, archival material, and current documentation of the cultural activity flourishing today. It manages to engage, at one turn horrifying, at another uplifting.

The most memorable stories are those attesting to artistic dedication, despite all odds. Master teacher Pen Sok Huaon, enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, recalls: "Every time they send me to chop up dirt, I would stop working in order to bend and flex my arms because I have the feeling I would return home. AT nighttime, when I was free from work, I usually sang in secret each song that accompanied the dancers o I would be able to remember them."

In the refugee camps, amidst the daily struggles for survival against inhumane conditions and starvation, music and dance were a priority. Those with the least bit of basic knowledge would teach their skills to the others in order to keep the culture alive. In turn, the culture keeps them alive. As Toni Shapiro-Phim of Yale's Cambodia Genocide Program puts it, "For those few hours a day, they were beautiful and in control." 
L.A. Times
by Chris Pasles

The power of Cambodian dance can hit a Westerner like a thunderbolt.

That's what happened to Toni Shapiro when she worked among survivors of the genocidal years of the Pol Pot regime, 1975-1979, in a refugee camp in Indonesia.

And that's what happened to filmmaker Janet Gardner when she visited Phnom Penh in 1990 as part of the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project delegation.

Drawing on Shapiro's work, her own experience and a number of Cambodian dancers dedicated to preserving this endangered art form, Gardner make an hour long documentary, "Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia."

Working with refugees, Shapiro noticed interesting cultural differences.

"Among the 10,000 people there from Vietnam, there was poetry and painting and rock 'n' roll played on donated instruments," Shapiro said in a recent interview from her Berkeley home. "Among the 300 Cambodians - who had escaped from these horrible circumstances - there was dancing. They were performing for each other. I was completely overwhelmed by this."

The Cambodians were not professional dancers, however.

"Mostly, they were people from the country side. For some reason they felt this was an important thing to do in the midst of this loss and inhumanity. I was moved to try to figure out what the meaning of dance was for the people of Cambodia."

To do so, she wrote a dissertation, "Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia," at Cornell University on the relationship between war and dance in Cambodia from 1975 to the present.

That research inspired Gardner, a documentary filmmaker who had gone to
Phnom Penh to take pictures for the United Nations.

"I fell in love watching the monkey dancers practice," Gardner said in a recent interview from her offices in New York. "The little boys were just astonishing. They were just so amazing, so mischievous. I was very captivated by them."

"The dance was astonishingly beautiful, and I knew that it was threatened. The Khmer Rouge had wanted to kill anybody who was an intellectual or an artist, or in some cases who even wore glasses. During the Khmer Rouge years, artists had to go underground and even pretend they were someone else, fake professions and fake biographies."

Her film focuses on Thavro Phim, whose father, brother, and grandfather were among the more than 1 million Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge years. It follows him on a return to Cambodia in 1998 for a reunion with surviving family and teachers.

A brilliant monkey dancer, Phim is now 28. He and Shapiro married in 1997 and live in Albany, California.

"You cannot generalize about the Khmer Rouge years," Phim cautioned. "Not everybody was killed because they were dancers or city people. Not everybody was killed because they were intellectuals."

"It is very complicated. But it is true that after the Khmer Rouge, 80% to 90% of the artists, musicians, actors, and dancers died from starvation or were killed. Only a handful survived, and immediately after the Khmer Rouge years, they reopened the School of Fine Arts. They wanted this knowledge to remain alive and be carried on."

There are four main roles in Cambodian dance – god, goddess, giant and monkey, Phim said. Gods, goddesses and monkeys are good characters; giants are evil.
Cambodian dance is not just a form of entertainment, Phim said. It represents Cambodian culture itself.

"As Cambodians, we feel, if the culture falls apart, the country, the nation will disappear. It has a very important role in society."

"To be a Cambodian dancer or a classical dancer, you do not fell you are only a dance. You feel like you carry a very important part of Cambodian culture in you. It's a way of connecting the present tot he past, the people to their ancestors."

"This is a very critical period," he added. "Right now, compared to the years immediately after the Khmer Rouge, yes, I have a strong hope for survival of the culture. We have 300 young people in the dance school in Cambodia."

"But conditions there are still very unsettled. The people are still very unsettled. The country must try and find a way to strengthen itself. I'm not quite 100% sure that the arts are going to survive. We need to be strong and have a strong commitment to them. You never know what is going to happen."

Dancing Through Death: The Monkey, Magic and Madness of Cambodia will air at 3 p.m. Sunday on KOCE-TV Channel 50.


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