Neang Kavich, a 25-year-old filmmaker who grew up in Phnom Penh’s White Building, and 18-year-old San Pattica, an African-Khmer student met around two years ago when Kavich saw Pattica starring in a majestic Apsara dance performance, veiled behind a traditional ghoulish mask. Kavich, who was formally trained in folk and traditional Khmer dance at Cambodia Living Arts, started up a conversation and the two became fast friends. After releasing a smattering of short films, Kavich is now in the post-production stages of his first feature length documentary produced by Rithy Panh, Where I Go, revealing Pattica’s story, his beautiful dance and his search for identity. The film explores the racist undercurrents Kavich says ripple through the Cambodian psyche.
“I was born near Psar Thmei in Phnom Penh. I lived with my grandmother. My father is from Cameroon and worked for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). I never met him. Well really I was an orphan - my mother is a drug user.
Life has been difficult. I never felt comfortable, my aunty and uncle and grandmother weren’t nice to me. Sometimes they’d push my head down. When they would eat rice, I would get a separate soup. They made me sit outside to eat, like a dog. We all know Khmer people think white skin is beautiful. They say black means evil.
When this would happen I would leave outside and look at the moon and tell myself I wanted a father. I would go and play with the animals - the cats and dogs and the ants, these were my friends. I had no dream to live with my mother, she often hurt me, and she abandoned me. I dream about meeting my father every night, I want to go to Cameroon. I would have been happier there.
My mother has refused to tell me my father’s name - she said he was black and the name was not beautiful. I overheard neighbour’s gossip and know Dad is from Cameroon, that’s all I know. My mother was a beer-girl and met him there at the beer garden.
I went to the orphanage at the age of 11. The other kids call me “A Khmao” (n****r), or “water buffalo”, they say “you are black to the bone like a monkey”. I only have two friends - but then I have Kavich who is like a brother to me.
Kavich is helping me research UNTAC and what I need to do so that I can find my father. It’s hard though, the UN have not been helpful, we have asked them for information but they just say to go to the election committee (from 1993). I don’t blame my father; I don’t think he even knows I exist. My mother has admitted she never told him.
I have a half-African sister too, to a different father. She has found and met her father three times. Oh, I am very jealous. When I see loving families, yeah I get envious.
I hope the film will be able to make the issue of race apparent to people, and to the thousands of mixed race children like me in Cambodia and what we go through. I hope it will allow me to find my father. Kavich has given me hope and has made me feel more confident.
When I first met him I worried he thought the same things about me as the kids at the orphanage did about my skin. He’s encouraged me to chase things though and to be determined. I hope people will talk about his film.
I feel African and Khmer. I am passionate about Khmer culture. I want to be a politician in Cambodia and help preserve culture and encourage equality and human rights. Especially dancing - I would like my children to know Apsara.
There’s no course in politics at university here though. I’d love to be an ambassador and strengthen relations between Africa and Cambodia.
If I saw my father I would hit him ten times, not hard, and say: “why did you go away?”
“Although I was poor Pattica has made me realise how good I’ve had it. Yeah, I was surrounded by drug users and prostitutes (at the White Building), yeah we were poor but there was a good community and my parents love me.
My father is a sculptor-traditional stone and wood carving - and returned to the White Building after the Khmer Rouge, where many artists returned. He worked for the Ministry of Culture.
I feel horrified by the racism and prejudice that exists in this country. Isn’t a person’s character, what’s inside, the most important? I don’t understand it. Some of my friends are like this, some of my family.
I danced at Cambodia Living Arts for six years, I was 15 when I started. I was able to travel to the UK, so yeah, that’s lucky. It was more of a social thing for me. And then studying film at Bophana - my passion - and graphic arts.
I don’t know if I have ever really felt discrimination now, when I see what he’s faced.
I’m very proud of him - he’s so talented and intelligent. He has picked up English so quickly; he’s the best student in his school.
I feel Pattica is Cambodian. But there is something a bit different from other kids - more knowledgeable perhaps, quiet, thoughtful and reflective.
I would love to go with him to Cameroon. I’m not sure how easy any of that could be. For me, I like talking to people. When we talk we understand each other, it’s just easy. We like to talk and exchange ideas.
I felt a connection to Pattica, I guess I understand expression through body language and expression through dance and noticed something…maybe vulnerable…in him. We’re both dancers.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at firstname.lastname@example.org