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Film takes on Khmer chant taboo

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Filming for Neang Kavich’s documentary in Kampong Speu province, where students are learning the traditional art of Smot. Photo Supplied

Smot, the traditional Khmer chanting often heard at funerals has long been feared for its close association with death. Now a young filmmaker has unveiled a documentary that aims to reclaim the art form and “wake the country up from fear”.

The film, simply titled Smot, by Neang Kavich, 24, has graced the international stage, having been screened originally in Phnom Penh and then at international film festivals in Europe and Southeast Asia.

The filmmaker hopes that the success of the film will teach people not to be afraid when they hear the chants.

He said: “Many people in Cambodia are scared of Smot. But what I want to say in the documentary is that the chanting isn’t a scary, but a meaningful rhyme.”

Kavich, who spent six years studying Khmer traditional dance at Cambodia Living Arts, is now a graphic design student at Limkokwing University.

His 17 minute-long documentary was filmed in 2009 after he met Davy Chou, who was his mentor during shooting.

“Davy introduced me to a film workshop, where I grabbed a chance to propose my proposal to shoot the chanting film,” he said.

He said he used to be afraid of the chant but changed his mind when he found out that the chant is not only used for funerals, but at other Buddhist ceremonies and at royal birthday celebrations.

“When hear the word ‘Smot’, what comes to the minds of most Cambodians minds is funerals, but they don’t know how meaningful and beautiful the chanting is.”

“I want to wake Cambodia up from fear to understand the meaning of the chant and keep this kind of art form alive.”

He first screened the film at Meta House in Phnom Penh in 2010. He applied to have the film shown at festivals in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, France and Germany and was accepted.

He said: “I really appreciate to show the film in the international stage because it can eventually show off the our long-life traditional music.”

“There were times foreigners came to me and said thought they don’t understand the meaning; however, the chant was beautiful to them.”

The first scene of Smot, which is shot in darkness with the sound of chanting in the background, deliberately unnerves the audience, but then the story progresses to the explanation of Master Koet Ran, who is teaching Smot at Kompong Speu province. He talks about the history of this art form and source of the fear that surrounds it.

The film also takes the audience to Kompong Speu where the Smot class of Cambodia Living Arts is located.

“Smot is in dang of being abandoned because not many young Cambodians think of taking the class. It may caused by the fear people hold when talking about Smot that they don’t want to learn about it,” said Koet Ran.

Not content with his achievement at the international film festival, Kavich now wants to screen the film again at Meta House in Phnom Penh and his school in Kompong Speu.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lim Meng Y at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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