A group of 3 documentary filmmakers from Estonian Public Broadcasting, author and director Gerli Nõmm, script editor Anniken Haldna and cinematographer Martin Tennokene, spent the month of January 2016 in Cambodia.
Cambodia used to be home to some of the most diverse arts and culture in Southeast Asia. Music, dance and theater flourished until in the years between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge put a devastating end to that.
During those years, 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation and overwork; among the dead were 90% percent of Cambodia’s artists, who were specifically targeted for execution. This was a ruinous blow to Cambodia’s cultural heritage, especially given that the skills were passed on from master to student, and were rarely written down.
Some of the Masters survived and the non-profit organization Cambodian Living Arts found them and since 1998 they have been supporting the Masters and giving scholarships to underprivileged children so the traditions could continue.
Our documentary tells the story of 3 women from different generations who all have dedicated their lives to the most ancient and endangered Cambodian art forms – Smot chanting. This buddhist poetry singing method shares the wisdom of life and death and brings comfort and knowledge to people. Smot chanters perform at traditional ceremonies, funerals and other religious events and have played a big role in khmer culture.
Master Koeut Ran – an old respected woman, who shared with us her story of surviving the Khmer Rouge regime. Since 2004 she has been teaching Smot for younger generations, but by now has retired and given up teaching children. She continues giving private lessons to the monks and makes a small income by performing at the ceremonies.
She is the link between our two other characters Srey Pov and Srey Oun who learned Smot with Master Koeut Ran and have earned honorable positions in their communities thanks to their rare talent.
Srey Oun – our main character – is a 35 year old woman from Kampong Speu Province, Kong Pisey village. She lives a traditional and modest life at the countryside, works on the rice field with her family and has dedicated her life to buddhism, helping her old parents and teaching Smot at the local elementary school. She left school in the 9th grade to work, support her parents and help them out with household works. She has had no luck with finding a good husband, so she has stayed single, which is rather uncommon in Cambodian culture. Her biggest dream was getting a scholarship from CLA and studying traditional khmer music in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, but she had no luck. At the moment she is dedicated to teaching Smot chanting at the local school to hundreds of children. Her monthly income as a teacher is 70 USD.
Our third character Srey Pov is a good example of how development cooperation can change lives. She is a 24-year old successful business woman, based in Phnom Penh. She was born and raised in Kampong Speu province as our two other ladies, but thanks to the scholarship she had the chance to attend high school in Phnom Penh and afterwards study Smot at the university. She owns a growing business called Srey Pov Smot, that sells the ceremony organizing service to wealthy cambodians. She has more than 10 employees working for her and offering the full service of ceremonies, starting from decorations, finishing with catering and mastering the ceremonies. That allows her to dedicate on her passion for Smot chanting.
During the month in Cambodia our team had the chance to take a close look at the khmer culture and Cambodian history. We experienced the amazing hospitality of cambodian families that welcomed us in their homes and let us participate in the religious ceremonies, that were often very personal and intimate. We witnessed the harsh contrasts and class divisions in cambodian society.
As many other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia is developing rapidly. The capital is full of fancy cafes and shops that the locals often can't afford to go to. New skyscrapers are in the process of construction almost at every street corner. At the same time, only 2 hours car drive away, there are endless rice fields, coconut forests, pagodas and villages where the inhabitants are trying to hold on to the disappearing traditional ways of living.