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Q&A: Archivist on living Pol Pot history, unseen Angkor

17 Chea Sopheap

Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center archivist and research analyst Chea Sopheap is one of the driving forces behind the film hub, library and production centre funded by award-winning director Rithy Panh.

The 29-year-old has spent the last few days racing between film screenings at Chaktomuk Conference Hall, seminars and conferences as part of the highly anticipated, nine-day Memory! International Heritage Film Festival (organised by Rithy and the Bophana team along with the Paris-based Technicolor Foundation).

The softly spoken Royal University of Phnom Penh history graduate garnered much praise for his drive and enthusiasm in New York at the Season of Cambodia (SOC) festival several months ago as one of five arts management professionals selected for the festival’s arts fellowship program. SOC executive director Phloeun Prim hailed him “one of the best arts readers in the country . . . a rising star.”

Since 2008, Sopheap, originally from sleepy Kampong Cham, has been fastidiously sourcing and cataloguing film and audio archives (the centre has a public audiovisual collection of more than 3000 films, documentaries, reports, television and radio news broadcasts, clippings and comic strips), along with producing exhibitions and lectures.

While in New York he uncovered archival films and videos of Angkor in the early 20th century, which he believes has never been seen in Cambodia, at the Library of Congress in Washington.

How did history become to be such an important part of your life?
As a child, my parents would talk about the Khmer Rouge and that time a lot. If we ever left food on our plates, they’d gently remind us about the bad times. I think they were a bit different in that way. A lot of my friends’ parents refused to talk about that period, it was too painful. But my parents always thought it was important to not forget – to make sure we had an understanding of it. I always had questions from a young age. I found the Khmer Rouge extraordinary; I couldn’t believe it had happened.

Teachers at school – they’d sometimes talk about it but it was not ever taught, it wasn’t in the curriculum.
Was it a tough decision to decide what to study?
I was offered several scholarships after high school, a blessing because my family is very poor. I was also offered a place to study electronic engineering, but I chose history instead. My friends thought I was crazy. They thought, “you can’t make money from that”. Our history education was very broad, maybe too much so. I wanted to focus on modern history – 1953 and after that – of course I was fascinated by the Khmer Rouge but also Sihanouk – the “untouchable” they’d say and I wanted to learn more.  

Here [at Bophana] I’m in charge of collecting archives and indexing. I had no idea about how to use audio visual documents before coming to Bophana. We were never introduced to this at university – it was all text based. It was quite revolutionary here for me when I first came to Bophana,  
radio programs from the Khmer Rouge, the propaganda they would broadcast when visiting officials came – these are amazing primary sources that most Cambodians [of my generation] have never heard.
Are you close with Rithy Panh?
He is like an uncle to us here. He says a good film will make you remember something, it will make you feel something.
What was the most meaningful part of your SOC experience?

At the Holocaust Museum, as soon as I walked through the door I felt incredibly affected. It was much stronger [than Tuol Sleng]. They have many different ways of presenting the holocaust. You know, I could smell the shoes of the victims, it was so moving. In 2004 I felt Tuol Sleng was very powerful, I wanted to close my ears, I could feel the screams and cries. I could see blood on the tiles.  Recently I went and I think it is being marketed too much as a tourist attraction – there are tourists, chatting, laughing. Some respect has been lost.

At the Library of Congress we uncovered amazing footage from 1931! A home film called Thom, the Unknown. It was a family movie, a British family with teenage kids, an amateur film with a narrative, waking up, running up the temple, I loved it.  You could see what life was like then – the Cambodian people living around Angkor. I would love to track down the children, grandchildren of this family and learn more.



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