Day 4

The ancient and the modern

By Marianna Edmunds | Mar 23, 2011

In Phnom Penh we met Srey Pov, a 19-year-old first year university student, who practiced ancient Cambodian music, Smot, learning from a 63-year-old master. Every Sunday, Yan Borin gives Srey Pov a lesson in this complex funereal lament. The two sang in tandem, collapsing a 44-year age difference, and transporting us back 2,000 year, to the time of Buddha they say, in a one room apartment at the end of an alley in the middle of downtown Phnom Penh.

As we filmed, we were mesmerized. The story of this young woman from the countryside falling in love with an ancient music form at the age of 13 while all of her peers were trying to keep up with western music, captivated our imagination. It was like lifting off the veil on a life below the surface of a once vibrant culture returning to life.

Srey Pov has become one of the very few, and certainly the youngest, smot singers in the country. The pride and emotion in the eyes of her master spoke volumes as he told us of his fear that smot had been extinguished during the Khmer Rouge years under Pol Pot when all forms of culture and learning had been outlawed, and 1975 declared Year Zero in the building of “a new society.”  Srey Pov’s passion had put life back into his eyes, and seemed  one more sign that the arts are emerging as a crucible of a new and revived cultural identity in Cambodia coming back through its young people.

Thinking the morning could not be topped, a visit to the Harpswell Foundation dormitory where 46 young university women all on scholarships from the countryside, ages 17 to 22, were engaged in a six week leadership seminar. The new dorm was the idea of Alan Lightman, of "Einstein’s Dreams," who went to Cambodia several years ago, saw the inequity that faced women; i.e. no housing provided, but all of whom qualified for university, so decided to create a foundation and build two dormitories and incorporate a program of leadership.

All the women were all on scholarships and from all around the country. The program has become a huge success, providing inspiration for young Cambodian women to take hold of their futures as leaders. We were invited to sit in for the final session on leadership. For two hours the young women were coached in constructive criticism and self confidence through roll playing and partnering games. The excitement was palpable. After, one 17-year-old came up to me, and when I asked her what she might want to be after university, without missing a beat, she said “minister of economic affairs.”

These were seminal moments of this trip, and this is when documentary filmmaking tests your ability to remain detached.

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