War and beauty seems an incongruous pairing, a pairing that is explored in a new photo exhibition at FCC Angkor in Siem Reap in February featuring photographs by award-winning documentary maker, Dr. David Feingold.
Feingold is an anthropologist who for fifteen years served as international coordinator for HIV/AIDS and Trafficking at UNESCO, Bangkok.
He has conducted field research in Southeast Asia over five decades, has made numerous documentaries, and is now the director of the Ophidian Research Institute and Ophidian Films Ltd.
Four of his powerful documentaries will also be screened at regular intervals for the duration of the exhibition.
The exhibition is formally titled, ‘Cambodia: War and Beauty,’ and it “Draws on Feingold’s rich experience documenting Cambodia’s history through the lens of culture, politics and war.”
The exhibition is divided into four themes covering war, culture, the transition to peace and the effect of landmines, and graphically interprets the contrasts, continuities, and changes in Cambodia over a 30-year period, as witnessed by Feingold through a variety of lenses.
The story of how the exhibition came together is as interesting in itself, and Marina Pok, a doyen of the Cambodian art scene and the curator of the Feingold exhibition, takes up the story.
“For my part, I met David in the refugee camp Site B along the Thai border in 1988, while I was working there for humanitarian programs,” she says. “Decades later, I was the executive producer on the documentary ‘Life and Death at Preah Vihear’, directed by David Feingold.”
The idea of the Feingold exhibition was germinated in Paris in May 2018 after a chat with him during the Season of Cambodia festival, when Marina was organising, Légèreté (Lightness), an exhibition by Hungarian-trained artist Suos Sodavy, now based in Phnom Penh.
One of the daunting tasks in organizing Feingold’s exhibition was perhaps not so much what to include but what to leave out.
“Selection is always difficult,” says Feingold, “Obviously, the pictures had to be selected from a much larger corpus, much of which was shot on slide or black-and-white film. Thanks to a series of generous foundation grants, I was able to have a very large number of slides and negatives scanned at high resolution.”
The guiding principle in selecting the photos for exhibition was to show continuities and contrasts in Cambodian culture and history.
“I decided to organise around the major themes of war and beauty, emphasizing both the terrible trials and cultural resilience of the Cambodian people, and the role that culture plays in perseverance and survival,” he says.
“This was brought home to me in 1986 when I was filming in Site 2, a huge refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. It was at the time, I was told, the second largest Khmer ‘city’ in the world.
“A superb classical dance troop had crossed through mine fields to escape to Thailand because, they said, the Vietnamese forced them to cut three minutes from a performance. The troupe’s manager told me, ‘For us, dance is another front of struggle’.”
That is how seriously these dancers took their art, and they preserved classical dance by training children in the camp to a high standard.
“I also was able to explore the revival of dance in Cambodia itself, including how young students are auditioned and accepted for training.”
Another aspect of the exhibition features outtakes of the filming of faction fighting in Cambodia.
“My film partner in the ‘80s, Shari Robertson, and I were able to film in Cambodia at a time when few people could,” Feingold says, “We were able to film with all four factions fighting over Cambodia at the time.
“After elaborate negotiations over a two year period, which included the Thais, the Chinese, various Khmer factions, and the Khmer Rouge, we were able to film with Khmer Rouge troops in the forest and interview Son Sen, the KR top military commander at the time.
“We also got to film with PRK government forces opposing the KR and villagers – often caught in the middle. I have included photos that I made during this period that I hope convey some of what it was like.”
Feingold spent three years in the ‘90s working on landmines and their effect on in Cambodia.
“Landmines are the toxic waste of war – they keep on fighting long after the war is over,” he says,
“At the time, Cambodia was the landmine capital of the world. It was estimated that there was one mine for every man, woman and child in the country. Thanks to dedicated and dangerous work by CMAC, the Halo Trust, MAG, and other humanitarian deminers, the problem is much better, but it is still not solved. For landmine survivors, the pain last a lifetime.
“I have included pictures of the demining process in the field and rehabilitation work with survivors.”
Also, included in the exhibition themes is the slow transition from war to peace with the revival of Buddhism, the rebirth of daily life, and the revival of royalty and the return of the king. “I was able to attend and photograph the investiture of H.M. King Sihanouk after his return to Cambodia,” Feingold says.
The exhibition at FCC Angkor runs from February 7 -29, with screenings of Feingold’s documentaries to be held during the exhibition: ‘Waiting for Cambodia’ (1988) on February 7 at 7:30 pm, ‘Return to Year Zero’ (1989) on February 13 at 7 pm, ‘Inside the Khmer Rouge’ (1990) on February 20 at 7 pm, and ‘Life and Death at Preah Vihear’ (2014) on February 27 at 7 pm.
The exhibition then runs in Phnom Penh at Meta House from March 12 to April 9, with Feingold’s films being shown every Thursday.