In a traditional wooden house in the mountains of Mondulkiri, a Bunong woman dressed in traditional attire and accessories sings a cheerful song.
Standing beside her, tuning a guitar, is Julien Poulson, the producer of well-known Phnom Penh-based band The Cambodian Space Project.
Sorng Brou, the singer, was one of Poulson’s first connections with the indigenous people inhabiting Bou Sra, in this northeast Cambodian province of Mondulkiri.
Their first meeting was now more than 10 years ago, but Poulson has continued to visit the Bunong regularly throughout the years to immerse himself in their unique music and culture.
Poulson, a guitarist and a native of the Australian island of Tasmania, describes his experience with the Bunong as “real magic”, and has now engaged in a new project to immortalise that magic – the feature-length film Echoes Across the Mountains.
“Echoes Across the Mountains is the name I’m giving to a film about the music and culture of the Bunong people.
“More specifically, it’s about my own connection with indigenous musicians in Bou Sra village and the experience of coming to know them over a period of almost 10 years,” he says.
Poulson describes himself as an environmentalist and a believer in the value of understanding and recording oral histories, folkloric tales, music and listening to and learning from indigenous voices.
The inspiration behind Echoes Across the Mountains flows from a sense of urgency to protect the culture of ethnic minorities around the globe, Poulson says. The movie centres on Bunong musician struggling to maintain their identity in a rapidly changing world.
Poulson says the movie will be based on interviews and song recordings that he has made over the past 10 years while visiting Bou Sra.
It won’t be his first venture into the world of celluloid. He studied film in Melbourne and screened his first film – a short film shot on Super-8 based on the story of Cambodian singer Poev Vannary – at Cannes in 2018.
“For me, Bou Sra is a place where I really feel a sense of the spirit of the mountains. I felt compelled to listen and learn about the place and I’m especially drawn to a little village where I’ve kept returning to over this last decade,” he says.
Poulson met Brou during his quest to learn more about the music of the Bunong, a journey that led him to forming strong bonds with them.
In fact, it was Poulson who christened Brou’s band ‘The Cultural Troupe of Bou Sra,’ as they didn’t have a name.
He has also spent much time working to promote the community arts group at many of the events he manages, which includes the Kampot Readers & Writers Festival.
“They have been incredible, wonderful and supportive people to work with, they are the storytellers of the mountains, and I’m just helping them be seen and heard. I feel it’s a worthy thing to do, and I love the music I’m discovering because of this,” Poulson says.
He says he felt compelled to visit Bou Sra for the first time when he heard Kak Channthy’s first-ever song. Channthy, who passed away in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh two years ago, was the frontwoman of The Cambodian Space Project.
Other prominent community leaders, singers and song-writers in Bou Sra have also passed away recently, Poulson says, which has made him steadfast in his resolution to help preserve their legacy through film.
“As we enter 2020, I’ll be working with Sorng Brou and our musicians and artists to make the film Echoes Across the Mountains – perhaps even a kind of Mondulkiri Space Project! I know this is something Channthy would have loved to see too.
“For me, the film is a way to bring together much of the ideas and music we’ve already shared over this time and to do this with the purpose of storytelling.
“Most importantly, I want to share with the world indigenous voices and their unique understanding of spirit, land, environment and cultural heritage, at a time when things are changing so fast and cultures like the Bunong are under threat of disappearing altogether.
“It has been a 10-year journey so far but I have only just embarked on the film and music recording work and now it’s happening in earnest,” he says, adding that he hopes to have enough material filmed and recorded by late 2020 and a complete film ready by March next year.