The legendary British film director Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director”. If this is true, it should be the God that has guided David A. Feingold to Cambodia, even before he became a famous anthropologist and award-winning film director. He filmed both life during the glorious era of Sangkum Reastr Niyum (1955-1970) and the struggle of Cambodian people in Khmer Rouge and post-Khmer Rouge communist era. While preparing for his photo exhibition and film screening in Cambodia’s Meta House, Feingold is talks to Taing Rinith about epic life journey so far.
GT2: Can you tell us about your first visit to Cambodia? What were your early impressions of the country at that time?
Feingold: When I was about 12 years old, I read an international, hard-cover edition of American Heritage magazine about the wonders of the world. It contained an incredible photograph of the Bayon temple taken by Marc Riboud, a famous French photographer. Once I saw that, I told myself I had to see it in the flesh.
That’s how I decided to come to Cambodia in 1961 for the first time as an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College. When I first arrived, Phnom Penh was the most beautiful city in Southeast Asia.
The main streets were very wide and the city had beautiful architecture. It was magical. I visited the Royal Dance School in the Royal Palace and the young dancers’ performances were magnificent. Then after graduation from Dartmouth, I went to Yale and took Southeast Asia Studies. In 1964, I came back again to work on a short project on Angkor. Afterwards, I didn’t return for many years because my research was mostly done in Northern Thailand and Burma.
GT2: How did you return to work on projects associated with Cambodia?
Feingold: In 1986, I was doing a film in the palace with the King of Thailand. Part of it was essentially culture, including classical dance. Then I heard that the best Cambodian classical dance was happening at Site 2, a refugee camp on the border. So we went out there to investigate and that was a start of film series that I did about Cambodia. At that time, Site 2 was the second largest Cambodian city in the world and the third largest city in Thailand; even bigger than Battambang. I did a film called Waiting for Cambodia (1988), which is about the politics of refugees.
GT2: Can you describe the documentary film series that you made on Cambodia?
Feingold: After Waiting for Cambodia, I did films with several different factions from Cambodia’s conflict, including the Khmer Rouge. I lived with the Khmer Rouge in 1989 in a jungle just next to the Thai border and interviewed Son Sen, an important leader of the Khmer Rouge and the one responsible for ordering the massacre of more than 100,000 in the Eastern Zone of Cambodia during the last six months of 1978, in my film Inside the Khmer Rouge. Then, in 1993, I worked on a film on landmines for three years, during which we found Motorola chip in Chinese landmines. All of these were made for public TV in the United States and their biggest science program, NOVA.
The last documentary that I made on Cambodia is Life and Death of Preah Vihear (2015), which explores why two Buddhist countries fought in the 21st Century over a Hindu temple from the 11th century because of a innacurate French map from the early 20th century. I was filming on both sides of the border.
GT2: What did life look like to you when you came back to Cambodia in 1987? How different was it compared to your first visit?
Feingold: Back then, very few outside television people could get into Cambodia. Everyone told me they did not want the Khmer Rouge to come back while there was still a 45,000-strong Khmer Rouge force still in existence at that time. On the street, there were no cars, only a few jeeps and Russian buses, plus some army trucks.
Everything else was cyclo. At night, you would see people cooking over open fires on the floors of the building; it felt like society had moved backwards. I also remember the turning on of the first traffic light in 1988. There was still a great shortage of food and no running water either, so the safest thing to drink was beer!
In 1988, my film crew and I became the first outsiders to be in Pursat province since before 1975. Everybody came to see us and a local dance troupe performed for us.
The local dancers reminded me of the Cambodian dancers in Site 2, who had escaped from Cambodia on a dangerous route covered with landmines because the Vietnamese who were occupying Cambodia asked them to cut three minutes from their performance. But, can you guess what the people’s complaint to us was? They did not have enough lightweight ploughs! Traditionally, men plough but because so many more men than women had died, women had to plough.
The women were complaining bitterly that the government was not getting them enough lightweight ploughs. But, the most tremendous change was in people. No thanks to the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had lost a great number of educated people, making it very hard for us to find people to work with.
GT2: You have been working in the entire Southeast Asian continent for years but why is Cambodia so close to your heart compared to the other countries in the region?
Feingold: I had a special feeling for Cambodia. Thailand was also special because I speak Thai and Arkha, but I found Cambodia fascinating. I found Cambodia culturally and historically incredibly rich. Also, there are so many different kinds of contradictions. Those are the things interesting to an anthropologist. I’ve also made many friends here along the way, so I will always return.
GT2: And what do you think about Cambodia today?
Feingold: Economically, it is doing so much better, and I am quite sad that many wonderful structures of the past, especially those I saw when I first visited Cambodia, have been replaced by ugly buildings and skyscrapers. Those modern buildings might be considered as national heritage 50 years from now, but for me, they are simply ugly.
GT2: What is on display at your exhibition which is launched this week at Meta House?
Feingold: The show is called ‘Cambodia: War and Beauty,’ and exhibits a number of pictures which I took during the years I spent working on projects in Cambodia. 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.
The ‘Cambodia: War and Beauty’ exhibition will be held at Meta House (#47 Street 178) from March 12 to April 9. David A. Feingold’s films is shown every Thursday at 7pm.