Rebuilding the Kingdom of Wonder: Art as a Form of Healing in Post-Genocidal Cambodian Culture

by Rachel Morrison

A fractal imageIn 1992, the New York Times profiled Kieng Kun Phary, a 25-year-old sculptor who, along with other Cambodian craftsmen and artisans, was part of an effort to re-create 1,500 years of Buddhist art that had been destroyed two decades earlier by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s brutal communist regime led by the autocratic Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979.

“The followers of Pol Pot killed our revered [Buddhist] monks and they destroyed the temples and all the centuries of beautiful art,” said Phary. “I am honored to help re-create part of it.”

Phary’s efforts to rebuild the temples and artifacts lost during the Khmer Rouge regime, which left between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians dead, is part of a continuing movement across the Cambodian diaspora to revivify the country’s religion, art, and culture. As part of that effort, Scripps College hosted a week-long festival in March that looked at the past and future of Cambodian arts through performance and conversation.

“The arts function to help create civil society, but what happens when genocide, or some other great catastrophe, destroys the cultural transmission process necessary for a culture to sustain the arts?” asks Anne Harley, associate professor of music at Scripps and co-organizer of the events. “Once that connection to the past is broken, it can be very difficult to recapture, because the teachers are gone; it’s like re-creating h i s tor y.”

Indeed, not only were temples and artifacts destroyed during the genocide, but the Khmer Rouge regime specifically targeted teachers, artists, leaders from various religions, and intellectuals as part of its goal to eradicate social hierarchies in Cambodia in favor of an egalitarian, peasant farming society based on the Chinese Maoist communist model. Hospitals, schools, government agencies, and universities were shut down, and city inhabitants, including those from the capital of Phnom Penh, were forced to leave behind all their belongings and march toward the countryside to work the fields, as recounted in Joel Brinkley’s 2011 historical account, Cambodia’s Curse: A Modern History of a Troubled Land.

The result was ghastly: Through overwork, starvation, and murder, more than 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was killed during the course of three years. The population was further reduced by waves of emigration: Between 1975 and 1994, 158,000 Cambodians came to the U.S. as refugees. Many ended up in Southern California, with sizeable populations now residing in Los Angeles and San Diego. Today, Long Beach hosts the largest number of people of Cambodian descent in the world, outside of Cambodia proper.

The task of reconstructing Cambodian identity has been burdened by ideological and political discord that still plagues the country nearly 40 years after Pol Pot’s ousting. In Cambodia, denial of the genocide was outlawed in 2013, but communities continue to be divided by those who supported (and still support) the Khmer Rouge and those victimized by that regime; sometimes these schisms even run through families. As a result, discussing the Khmer Rouge has become something of a taboo, further widening a deep divide within Cambodian society and also stultifying healing.

To explore some of these issues, Harley and Professor of French Nathalie Rachlin co-organized a festival of Cambodian arts dedicated to the role of the arts in restoring a nation. Supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the events took place from March 18 to 25 and included film screenings, premiere performances, music workshops, numerous class visits, panel discussions, and informal conversations with Cambodian artists. The climax of the festival was a world-premiere performance of new music by renowned Cambodian American composer Chinary Ung and a screening of the documentary The Missing Picture by acclaimed French Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh (who recently produced Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, which also focuses on the Cambodian genocide).

As Rachlin explains, “This project started two years ago when Professor Harley and I found we had a mutual interest in Cambodia. The idea arose to combine cinema and music and put together a program that would explore the role of 1the arts in a post-genocidal society, so we wanted to explore how these artists see their roles in reconstructing, sometimes in exile, an artistic culture.”

Harley led the commissioning of world-famous composer Chinary Ung to write a score based on the Therīgāthā, a collection of poems by and about early female Buddhist practitioners. “The Buddhist tradition is shared by so many Cambodians, even if they have deeply divided opinions about what happened during the time of the Khmer Rouge,” she explains. “The same is true of music: as such, I hoped that a musical piece setting Buddhist texts might provide a convening event for people coming from many different places and viewpoints.” Roughly translated as “Stories of the Elder Nuns,” the Therīgāthā, dating approximately to 600 BCE (roughly the time of the historical Buddha), represents the most ancient collection of women’s literature in the world. Along with engaging with topics relevant to the lives of East Asian women of the era, these verses also affirm the spiritual equality of the sexes in Buddhism. “I suspected that, as a Buddhist, Ung would value the spiritual importance of the Therīgāthā when I first reached out to him,” says Harley. “And indeed, he immediately understood the potential for a musical illumination of these women’s texts.”

Ung’s composition, presented in parallel world premieres at both Scripps College and Chapman University, is called Therīgāthā Inside Aura. Consistent with a hallmark of his oeuvre, the piece integrates aspects of traditional Cambodian music into scoring for Western musical instruments. Ung has also innovated here: each musician plays and sings at the same time, and he sets lyrics in English, Pali, and Khmer, a combination never before heard in his music. As Harley interprets it, the simultaneous setting of these three languages can be seen as a metaphor for Ung’s personal trajectory: there’s the language of his home country of Cambodia (Khmer), the language of Buddhist tradition (Pali, in which the Therīgāthā was written originally), and the language of his current country of residence (English).

For the music students who attended the premiere, Ung’s composition challenged their definitions of “classical music.” Reactions to the piece, which students were required to write about as part of Harley’s applied voice studio course, ranged widely—from wonder to emotional vulnerability, curiosity to confusion, and new self-awareness. What is certain is that Therīgāthā Inside Aura will live on to challenge and enrich future generations. The prestigious music-publishing house Edition Peters will add the work to its catalogue, and a commercial recording is in the works.

Because of the taboo in Cambodian culture around speaking of the genocide, much of the atrocity lives unspoken in the memories of the survivors. This has created a generational divide between those who bore witness to the Khmer Rouge regime and those who have no sense of the events that occurred, especially as so many were born in exile. “The trauma ripples through the generations—even those who were born well after the genocide are affected,” Harley explains. “We hosted three Cambodian composers, approximately 20, 50, and 75 years old—each from a different generation. It was evident from their remarks this week that the trauma has affected each of them very profoundly, and differently. Creating a space for unearthing this buried pain through the arts can be an avenue towards healing for some people.”

The Missing Picture, directed by French Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, was screened following the premiere of Therīgāthā Inside Aura, and a conversation with the three visiting Cambodian composers, as the culmination of the week-long festival. In this 2014 documentary, Panh aims to capture his own experience as a child in Cambodia’s killing fields, where both of his parents perished as he spent years toiling in labor camps amid the worst of human degradation. Through nonconventional storytelling, Panh taps into the ineffability of the genocide, exposing the difficulty of conveying a story that is “really at the limit of what can be represented,” says Rachlin, whose current scholarship focuses on French documentary cinema.

“Panh tries to find new forms in which to tell the stories that inspire our belief in humanity’s capacity for goodness,” Rachlin continues. “His art is a reminder both of our propensity for evil and of our need of and search for goodness. It’s an antidote to hopelessness.”

The film intersperses Khmer propaganda film reels, still dioramas populated by clay figurines, and other media, amounting to what Rachlin calls “a new cinematographic language.” The tableaus Panh creates using the figurines serve as a corrective to the propaganda the regime shared around the world, which shows happy workers tending to rice fields, cheering and clapping while in Pol Pot’s company. As a counterpoint, “the clay figures represent his family experiencing starvation, torture, and death,” she explains.

One of the key attributes of the Western mentality is the belief that talking can lead to catharsis—that only by processing our thoughts and memories aloud can we be unburdened by them (think Freud’s “talking cure” of the late 19th century, which has even older roots in the tradition of the Catholic confession). As the narrator intones in clipped, uninflected French toward the film’s end, “They say talking helps. You understand. You get over it… [But] words change[d] meaning”—prisoners had to chant propaganda in the evenings after work. “We [spoke] in slogans.” Under Pol Pot’s reign, language itself was unstable; it had become another cog in the regime’s machine. Images, too, may evade truth; after all, much of the extant archival footage of Pol Pot’s regime was created by the Khmer Rouge for international propaganda. Thus, Panh’s narrator concludes that as it relates to trying to reconstruct a factual version of history, “for me, this wisdom will never be.”

And herein lies the crux of how both language and images, in all of their subjectivity and distortions, may be insufficient to the task of conveying the truth about something whose horrors exist in a realm outside of the typical human experience. This is why, for Panh, the aim of art isn’t to reconstruct a factual version of events but to foster community through shared experience.“

What [documentarian filmmakers do] is not the work of the historians,” said Panh in a 2017 interview with the British Film Institute. “But I think that art, like books or films, can complete historians’ work and the work of justice. Because cinema opens a new field for people… [W]hen people watch a film they come together, to watch and talk together… I believe art can complete the other work.”

The Scripps Cambodian festival is a testament to how a culture—indeed, a country—can be resurrected from the ashes of genocide through creative expression. As Harley describes it, “Any type of art-making becomes a form of community building, whether it’s a conscious reaction to the genocide or not.” Rachlin elaborates: “Once a culture has been shattered, it is hard to make it whole again, and all you are left with are fragments of memories, fragments of art, and fragments of film. So after such a destruction, you have to reconstruct a whole culture out of fragments, out of a language that is inadequate, out of a history that has not been written.”


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