Siem Reap’s long running and beloved Giant Puppet Parade, which took a break last year, is back in action and happening tomorrow night – but in Battambang, not Siem Reap.
The puppet’s presence in Battambang is part of the growing city sisterhood between Battambang and Siem Reap that’s flourishing in the arts.
It is also part of the inaugural S’Art Urban Art Festival which kicked off on May 28, and that new festival is part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of Phare Ponleu Selpak, or ‘The Brightness of the Arts’ in Khmer.
“S’Art Urban Art Festival has the honour to welcome the Giant Puppet Street Festival,” says the official press release.
“After 10 years in Siem Reap, the Giant Puppet Project is bringing their puppet creation activities to Battambang for the first time.
“These giant puppets – collaboratively created – will invade the city in the form of a street parade, along with musicians, circus performers and fashion designers to impress young and old, and fill the first night of June with colour and joy.”
Siem Reap architect Stuart Cochlin, who co-founded the puppet parade in 2007, says the puppets came to Battambang for a number of reasons.
“Firstly, we have always wanted to,” he says. “All of the artists from the Puppet Project over the ten years we’ve been in operation were graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak based in Battambang, with many of them affiliated with the local art galleries.
“Thus there has always been a connection from the very beginning. We have always kept open the possibility of bringing the project and parade to Battambang and over recent years, and we have had discussions with Srey Bandaul and Tor Vutha from The Visual Arts Department about a possible collaboration.
“Luckily, this all came to fruition last year. Friend and director at Phare, Osman Khawaja, asked if we would like to take part in the S’art Urban Art Festival for 2019. We jumped at the opportunity and responded with a resounding yes.”
More than 200 children in Battambang were involved in two weeks of workshops with local schools and NGOs, and four puppets were made.
“Phare is providing much needed local support to make this event successful,” Cochlin says. “So far, it has worked out well. We have had years of expertise in organising such an event and Phare has been more than accommodating to help us facilitate it.”
Cochlin also explains the state of play with the puppet parade in Siem Reap.
“The Puppet Project took a year off last year,” he says. “This was a natural time out and break after over a decade of running the event.
“The Siem Reap Puppet Parade grew year by year, becoming one of the biggest children’s arts events in Southeast Asia. This is something we are all proud of. We had over 20,000 people lining the streets in 2017.
“With such a success also comes the pressure of delivering a high-quality large scale event every year.
“After the tremendous turn-out and participation in 2017, we decided that the organisational team would need to be expanded in order to meet the mounting needs and scale of the project, not to mention the importance of building a long-term sustainability model engaging local business funding and support.”
Meanwhile, back in Battambang, organisers say the 25th anniversary celebrations are spanning the entire year “through several events and happenings.”
In February, newly built Music School was blessed and opened, and in March the school reintroduced the Sokha show, telling the story of the founders and the beginnings of the school.
The French Institute in Phnom Penh also hosted Phare for three days in April to celebrate the arts and to showcase the students’ talents.
Meanwhile, Phare’s Siem Reap chief executive Dara Huot, speaking from Singapore while supervising the Phare circus performance at the Flipside Festival at the Esplanade Theatre, says that as a part of the 25th anniversary an animated movie is now also underway.
“We will have a gala dinner in Phnom Penh in October and there we make the official announcement of the production of an animated feature film,” he says.
“Production of the 80 minute animated film ‘The Khmer Smile,’ directed by Fabrice Beau, began in May in Cambodia. It is a Cambodian-French co-production and expected to be finished in two years. It will then compete in different festivals and also screen in world cinemas.”
Dara’s history with Phare sort of sums up what the organisation is about, and why it’s worth celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“I was a student at Phare Ponleu Selpak in music in 2000,” he says. “I was also an interpreter and went on Phare’s first awareness circus theater tours to Samlot and Pailin where the Khmer Rouge had just left the region and the population was integrated to and opened to outsiders.
“People were living with landmines and did not get mainstream media, so Phare’s young artists performed and educated about AIDS, landmines, malaria, dengue fever, and contraceptives.
“I later spent 12 years in tourism businesses in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but I am now involved with Phare because of the lives transformed thanks to Phare’s works.
“I know the young people who are now our teachers, artists, professors, writers, stage directors, and choreographers and who are very valuable members in Cambodian social development.
“I would like Phare to be self-sustaining and to continue to give such opportunities, values and inspirations to more and younger Cambodians. That’s why I am here and have worked with Phare social enterprise for nearly seven years.”