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In search of forgotten pasts and forsaken identities

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
The second screening of ‘Angkar’ at the French Institute of Cambodia was followed by an animated Q&A session with filmmakers and enthusiasts alike. KT/Jean-Francois Perigois

Several local and international films about Khmer Rouge have been shown in the past years. While most of them depict the tragic realities that Khmers faced in 1975, they all seemed to highlight just that – tragedy. But for Neary Adeline Hay, her film Angkar aims to go for different, more positive goals: rediscovering identity and total healing. Rama Ariadi watches Ms Neary’s “Angkar” and talks with the filmmaker about her masterpiece and the concept of self-identity she has been pushing forward in her screenplays.

Neary Adeline Hay navigated her way effortlessly through the crowd of well-wishers and curious audience that came for the screening of her work, Angkar. Having just arrived in Cambodia a little less than a week ago to scout locations for her upcoming project, her presence was immediately noted and in high-demand — she was being pulled left and right by who’s who from Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry, family members, and members of the press who wanted to hear what she has to say about her project.

After all, not only does Angkar touch on a very specific part of the nation’s history, the treatment given to the subjects constitutes a departure from the typical approach used to shed a light on this particularly tragic period in time — as she deliberately chose not to focus on the obvious.

Rather, the filmmaker chose to put a human face to actors behind what she dubbed as the theatre of death — to remind the audience that in the presence of such massive social upheaval where lawlessness was the norm, individual beings reverted to their primal instinct to survive. That said, it would be overly simplistic and not to mention, incorrect, to reduce Angkar as an expose, for first and foremost, it seeks to tell the story of how she came to be under Angkar’s superstructure.

“The story may be personal, but there is a universality behind the story that I believe extends the appeal [of Angkar] to a wider audience,” explained Ms Neary.

Her focus on the importance of the connection between one’s present and the past is featured in more ways than one throughout the film. Besides the obvious connection — after all, the story revolves around her father’s journey to the village where he had lived under the Khmer Rouge regime — the linkage is represented in more levels than one, some of which would probably be overlooked by the general audience, despite the contributions it made to the intensity of the entire film.

“There are no ‘natural sounds’ in the entire film. Everything was artificially recreated, apart from the dialogues,” Ms Neary pointed out. “We put a lot of thought into every aspect of the film to make sure that the message comes across loud and clear.”

While audio manipulation is not uncommon in post-production, one thing sets the treatment of sounds in Angkar apart — in that it is also geared towards creating a sense of intimacy and continuity between the subjects, their past, and the present.

Having spent most of her life in France, Neary Adeline Hay returns to Cambodia to rediscover and rexamine the past and present of the storied kingdom. KT/Jean-Francois Perigois

In fact, the sound of heartbeats that the audience can hear throughout the movie is the actual sound of Neary’s father’s beating heart — which was recorded with a microphone placed over his throat.

“Now you can understand my frustration when I heard that there were some mix-up in the audio channels in the premier screening in Phnom Penh!” she explained. “A lot of efforts went into the audio aspect of the film alone.”

With such attention to detail, there is little wonder why Angkar is receiving much attention. In fact, fresh off Angkar’s success in Rotterdam and Thessaloniki, the documentary has since generated even more buzz internationally — with plans on the horizon to screen the documentary beyond Europe and Asia.  That said, Ms Neary isn’t resting on her laurels. In fact, she has already began scouting for new locations for her upcoming project, ‘Ducks’ — part drama, part comedy, story of a road trip between a man and a child, that will once more touch on the theme of self-discovery.

Given the proximity of the theme to her previous work, one may think that Ms Neary has fallen into the trap of capitalising on a proven formula. But to her, this is a challenge that she is willing to take on. “I want to prove that as a filmmaker I am not defined by my story — that I can present the issue objectively through a different narrative,” she said.

The story of Ducks is based on a tradition that has largely disappeared from modern Cambodia — first recounted by her father to her as she was growing up. “When ducklings hatch from their eggs, they immediately latch on to the first thing that they see in a process called imprinting.”

“Once upon a time, farmers would deliberately let the ducklings imprint on them, after which the ducklings would follow the farmers to the city, all the while maturing along the way.”

Indeed, stories like these constitute a link to our past — it symbolises a certain truth once held in wide regard, which indirectly highlights the society’s values and identity.

But to Ms Neary, the importance of such stories extends beyond the quest of discovering Cambodia’s lost identity. While the journey may have begun with her story of self-discovery, but the question of identity is far from being exclusively hers to posit, and through her works — both past and present — she wants younger generations to ask the same questions.

“If society were analogous to a tree, then Cambodian society is a tree without roots, yet it has crazy branches sprouting from its trunk,” she continued. “This root is the foundation — our identity as an individual, and as a nation.”


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