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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Walking in the footsteps of Marguerite Duras

Walking in the footsteps of Marguerite Duras

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090303_17.jpg

Director Rithy Panh drew on 'territories of memories' by visiting the

old haunts of the Saigon-born novelist in preparation for his

adaptation of The Sea Wall

Photo by: Anne-Laure Poree

Elders from Samong Leu commune who remember the young Marguerite Duras.

In order to adapt Marguerite Duras' 1950s autobiographical novel Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (The Sea Wall), Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh followed in the footsteps of the Saigon-born author, who lived her youth, along with her mother and her two brothers, in the Indochina ruled by the French protectorate.

Rithy Panh, who filmed The Sea Wall in Cambodia where Duras spent most of her holidays and weekends until the age of 17, visited villages that he refers to as "territories of memories" in preparation for the film.

A  great deal of Rithy Pahn's  research took place in Samong Leu commune, Prey Nob district, near Ream National Park in Preah Sihanouk province, where Duras and her family used to reside.

Along National Road 4, 184 kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh, nothing indicates the place where Duras used to live other than a commemorative plaque installed a few years ago, which states  that the author lived here between 1925 and 1933.

Samong Leu commune is not easy to find, and today only the local elders remember the French family who used to vacation here so long ago.

I was terrified by the french. the old people told us: 'don't speak to them or they will kidnap you.

The elders were mere children when Duras and her family stayed in the village, but they remember Duras's mother as the Khmer-speaking srey barang, the white woman, Mrs Donnadieu.

"I lived in the house next door," said Kong Phal, whose age and wrinkled face merely complement his mischievous features. "I was terrified by the French. The old people told us: ‘Don't speak to them or they will kidnap you'."

The warnings, however, did not prevent Kong Phal from playing with the son of srey barang.

"We went hunting together. He had a rifle, I had a sling. Sometimes we found turkey's eggs.... He taught me French words, but I forgot everything. With the girl [Marguerite Duras], I had no relation except when she asked me for something."

Here, in this Cham commune of Samong Leu, nobody works in the wooden house of the white woman. But all of the old villagers remember Ngou, the Vietnamese foreman and driver of the family's convertible, because one day he was found dead in the toilets. The imam makes everyone laugh uncontrollably as he tells the story of this natural death in a strange place.

Memories endure

Kong Phal can still describe precisely the family's big wooden bungalow with its long corridor and its rice loft, built next to the fish-filled river where the French family used to bathe.

However, today it is difficult to imagine what the village would have looked like at that time, as only few of the family's house pillars remain, the river has no water and a road runs through the middle of the village.

In the 1940s, some of the villagers began working on the polders - which were called casiers - when French engineers mobilised resources to build dams and to reclaim agricultural land from the sea.

While villagers who had not paid their taxes had to work the fields for free, some like So Son received a salary.

"I earned a red coin of one riel per day. At that time, one thang, [24 kg of rice] cost 0.60 riel," So Son said.

These dikes were the dream of the srey barang, Mrs Donnadieu, who bought almost 200 hectares of land from the French administration, of which a large part proved unprofitable as the annual saltwater floods would spoil the rice plantations.

Fighting the tides

Despite the difficulties, however, she cultivated the soil from 1927 till 1938.

The Sea Wall is the story of her struggle to protect the land and to build dikes against the sea. The poverty that the family experienced in the period when Duras's mother tried to cultivate the land against all odds had a big effect on young Duras,  who later documented the story in her novel.

Rithy Panh chose to end his screen adaptation of The Sea Wall on this dream that has now become reality.

The Second World War, Cambodia's fight for independence and later the Khmer Rouge regime explain why the interest for Prey Nob's agricultural potential starts again only in the beginning of the 1990s.

Various studies led to the beginning of the rehabilitation of six polders in 1998 with the financial support of the Agence Francaise de developpement (AFD). The aim was then to control the water on a large scale by building dikes, canals and sluice gates and also by initiating management of the project by the local community.

A dream realised

Ten years later, 10,500 hectares of land are protected from the sea, and the impact on the community is clearly visible.

"By improving the income of a large number of households in the area, and by helping vulnerable farm households in particular, the project has reduced poverty," concluded a study conducted by Groupement de recherches et d'echanges technologiques (GRET), one of the organisations involved in the  project's implementation.

The management of the polders has been transferred to the Cambodians only a few weeks ago. Now it is up to them to maintain the infrastructure and its sustainability.

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