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SajakThor: Cambodian Dance Connects Past Trauma and Hopeful Future


Filmmaker and Fulbright fellow Chris Rogy shot SajakThor in Phnom Penh not long after the 2013 Cambodian election. The filmmaker is from Philadelphia and has lived in Cambodia developing various social projects, including a radio drama. "We trained community volunteers to produce their own radio drama, broadcasted on Low Power FM radio," Rogy says. "It was an election year, and the first presidential election with a newly reformed opposition party called the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy. The incumbent, Hun Sen, has remained prime minister for more than 25 years." There was no community activity other than election activity for the entire election month, which hindered their community-driven radio drama project. "It was quite frustrating on top of local obstacles in a community with no running water, electricity or paved roads, struggling with the effects of climate change and a resulting decline in household incomes," Rogy says.

"The Apsara stances and hand gestures have symbolic meaning. They have been studied, and their meanings have been preserved.  This is the dance as it relates to ancient culture." 

-Chris Rogy

After studying at The New School in Media Studies, Rogy used a Fulbright fellowship to work with the celebrated human rights activist, Arn Chorn-Pond. Rogy engages with video advocacy in order to address social issues. He says this film, more art than documentary, was made as a message of peace to empower communities in Cambodia to preserve their culture and a collective memory. Here, the renowned Apsara dancer and choreographer Belle Sodhachivy Chumvan performs by candlelight inside a traditional Khmer house -- an incongruous place for an Apsara dance, where Chumvan depicts a peacemaking goddess. She tells a story through delicate and vehement movements, recalling moments of conflict of Cambodia during the Vietnamese occupation that she herself had witnessed in her childhood. Her intimate performance lead viewers from an individual experience to a collective memory of a national conflict.

SajakThor

Filmmaker Chris Rogy describes his experience: “It was two weeks before elections in Cambodia, historically a violent time in the country’s past. I lived in Sangkat Olympic, just blocks away from the stadium. Suddenly, the walls began to shake from an enormous blast and I looked at my Cambodian friend who appeared equally concerned as we rushed outside to find fireworks erupting in the sky. The ruling party was celebrating the anniversary of the World Court’s order that Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia and not Thailand, a nationalist issue. As I watch Belle perform her piece in SajakThor, I think about the moment, as I was rushing out to the terrace expecting the worst. I think about history, oppression, human strength and perseverance, and she makes sense to me.”

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Read an interview with Chris Rogy below:

To those unfamiliar, what is an Apsara dance? How would you describe the character of the peacemaking Apsara?

There are two ways that I look at Apsara Dance. In the first way, it is an ancient and mythological representation, originating in the Hindu tradition and preserved on stone bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, and temples around the world. The Apsara stances and hand gestures have symbolic meaning. They have been studied, and their meanings have been preserved.  This is the dance as it relates to ancient culture. In another way, the Apsara dance is a modern dance. Most people don’t conceive of it in this way, but it’s true. In the 1960s the Queen of Cambodia commissioned choreographers to re-invent these lost dance movements based off the preserved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat. They trained the young princess Norodom Buppha Devi, who later revealed the routine to the public in a Royal ceremony. You can watch it on YouTube. In Cambodia today, most people interact with Apsara while training as young women or attending Royal and formal ceremonies. They tend only to see it as an traditional ceremony, but it’s interesting to think of Apsara dance as a living art, which can also be re-invented and re-appropriated to give meaning to contemporary issues, which is what we’ve attempted to do with SajakThor.  

SajakThor still 3
Still from "SajakThor"

What is behind the title: SajakThor?

I arrived at the title SajakThor on the recommendation of a mentor, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, Arn Chorn-Pond. His guidance throughout the process of making SajakThor can’t be overstated. He is a true inspiration to everyone he comes into contact with and a trove of knowledge to many seekers. Arn urged me to use the Sanskrit word, not just because it is the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, but also because the word connotes both dance and telling truth. The most accurate translation I’ve researched is cruel truth, which resonates in our narrative. I am so pleased to have given Arn the opportunity to name the piece that he was so integral in helping make.  


What was it like to make a film in Cambodia right after its 2013 elections?

I filmed SajakThor in 2013 while managing a Fulbright project in the Cambodian countryside. The project trained community volunteers to produce their own radio drama, broadcasted on Low Power FM radio. It was an election year, and the first presidential election with a newly reformed opposition party called the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy.  The incumbent, Hun Sen, has remained prime minister for more than 25 years. As it turned out, there was to be no community activity other than election activity for the entire election month. This halted our community-driven radio drama project. It was quite frustrating on top of local obstacles in a community with no running water, electricity or paved roads, struggling with the effects of climate change and a resulting decline in household incomes.

SajakThor - Cambodian landscape
Cambodian Landscape, Still from "SajakThor"


With little to do in the community, I returned to Phnom Penh. I began filming and conducting interviews -- as part of my own project -- at the intensifying CNRP rallies. I was so inspired by demonstrators' vigilance in the face of fear-mongering. The CPP has traditionally played on its role as ending war, warning the public that the country might return to an unstable state similar to the 80s and 90s if they weren't re-elected. Two weeks before the election, the CPP organized a celebration at Olympic Stadium, commemorating the World Court ruling that Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia, not Thailand. My apartment was just near Olympic Stadium, and I was terrified at hearing the fireworks display that ensued. Cambodians whom I spoke to shared the sentiment, at first thinking it was similar to a terrible time in the past, not a celebration. This upset me, and in many ways SajakThor became a response to that moment.


What story does this film tell of Cambodia? 

The gestures are a mixture of the official royal routine and other re-imagined movements developed by Belle. As-is we get a feeling of what Belle is communicating, and knowing the historical context - should be enough for viewers to discover that feeling, which is the storytelling.

What would you tell those interested in engaging with activist art?

Something about the term art activism always makes me cringe. What art is not political? When did it become necessary to add the term ‘activist’ to the end of it? It must be some twisted syndrome of late capitalism. I think there’s something innately political in confronting objects or creating worlds. It is certainly political to represent something. 

Interview by Isabel Ochoa-Gold

 

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Still from "SajakThor"

 

 

 


 

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