Day 13

Animators, fishermen, bloggers

By Marianna Edmunds | Mar 23, 2011

A day of goodbyes, unexpected surprises, and traveling.  After three days at the exciting arts institute of Phare Ponleu Selpak a 15-year-old non-governmental organization established by Cambodian refugees in 1994 in the northwest city of Battambang, we packed up to leave. Before bracing ourselves for the rough six-hour ride to Phnom Penh for more research, filming and pre-production, we decided to pay a visit to Phare for a last farewell. We wanted to thank our 19-year-old circus performer, Phunam, whose difficult but extraordinary life had captivated all of us.

After saying our goodbyes, we stopped at the Animation Arts building for a quick look at the work of these students. Housed in a typical Khmer building on stilts, we climbed the wooden stairs to the entry where we met 29-year-old Poi Chhunly, the director, who proceeded to amaze us with his stunning animation and artistic skills. His younger sister, just 16, was also there, animating a short film. What was supposed to be a few minutes morphed into two hours, as we screened project after project of animation, stories, and a documentary of Chhunly, who grew up on a rice farm, dropped out of high school to draw, and became one of Cambodia’s youngest and most renowned animation artists.

Leaving Battambang, we headed south, driving through vast stretches of green farmland of rice, fish, vegetables and fruits, passing traditional Cambodian houses on stilts punctuated by the occasional modern mansion looking a little out of place, much like many in the U.S. do. Half way down the Tonle Sap River we came to a floating fishing village. We had to stop, photograph and explore. It was almost dusk, the light was magic, and Vietnamese fish farmers from the floating village were bringing in baskets of fish to sell to Cambodians, who then cleaned the fish by stamping on them, chopped them up, and resold them.

This activity translated into intense bargaining between the two groups, who, while economically dependent on each other, are often at odds. Women were at the helm in this trade, maintaining the livelihoods of both nationalities in this vibrant river community. It was like a grand auction up and down the river and our cameras, thankfully, were relatively ignored, witnesses to a rare slice of Khmer life in this countryside village which seemed busier than the crowded streets of Phnom Penh.

Back on the road to Phnom Penh, we were speeding along trying to make up time from our serendipitous delays when suddenly – pop – our car suddenly listed to the left and limped to a full dead stop. Yes, it was a flat tire, very flat. Oh well, time for a stretch.  Out came the bags. We managed to dig out the spare, jack up the car, loosen the lugs (one broke off) and just as Paul was saying “don’t worry everything is under control”  – bam – the car snapped off the jack and we jumped back, and a little out of our skins. We had to start all over finding logs to prop up the car. Lauren caught it all on the Canon 5D, and looking at it after the fact was like watching those best home videos. Eventually, we managed to get the new tire correctly attached.

The rest of the ride was spent filling the other tires with air, and fueling up with propane and Pringles. We arrived in Phnom Penh, just in time to meet, “the Blue Lady Blogger”, Kounila Keo, who at just 22, is one of Cambodia’s most noted young journalists, and now blogger who has presented for TedX, and had just returned from a conference in Washington, D.C., on Women, Blogging, & The Media. It was her first time out of the country.  The daughter of farmers, Kounila excelled in school, learned near perfect English from a self taught local Cambodian mentor, and today is a reporter with Agence France Presse here in Phnom Penh. Kounila also writes provocatively and thoughtfully on Cambodian society, women, international and global issues. We went for dinner at a recommended North Korean restaurant where young Korean waitresses dressed in identical pink and white chiffon dresses of the1950s  danced and played the electric guitar singing traditional North Korean and Chinese tunes, as well as  Abba’s “The Dancing Queen”. Needless to say it was difficult to carry on a serious(or any kind)  conversation with Kounila about anything, so we exited thiss bizarre scene as diplomatically as we could.

One thing that sticks with me from today is the meaning of ‘Phare’, the institute where we had just spent three days, where art, and the teaching of all the arts, thrives for a community of orphans, street kids, and poor neighborhoods of Battambong.  Phare means ‘a beacon of light that guides ships to the coast or shore’ and that beacon of light is art itself, guiding and inspiring those who would not be heard otherwise, to express themselves in so many exciting ways. Surely this place, Phare Ponleu Selpak is a beacon of light for Cambodia’s present and future generation.

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