The animated video opens with a mellow musical melody played on a traditional Khmer stringed instrument called a Tro, awakening actors whose bodies are entirely covered with paintings of flowers that blink and sparkle like fireflies as a beautiful woman appears from a lotus blossom.
The scene is captivating and remains so as the melody from the piano, the traditional Khmer music and the humming of the actors come together in a chorus while the performers dance and tumble acrobatically.
The video – Freedom is a Summer Blossom – was made by Phare Creative Studio and features performances by many of the talented artists from Cambodia’s famous Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. It combines a broad range of artistic and technical skills with music, art, theatre and animation in a slickly produced and professional package.
The video was released on the Fourth of July – Independence Day in the US, celebrating the nation’s founding.
Phare Ponleu Selpak say they were honoured to be a part of the US embassy in Phnom Penh’s big holiday programme with their video featured in a virtual celebration marking the 245th birthday of the US.
The US embassy originally wanted to have Phare perform on stage for the event but they shifted everything online in light of the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.
They waited until June to make the final decision and by then it became clear that live and in-person stage performances weren’t going to be allowed anytime soon.
“The sudden change of plans made for a tight schedule for the timeline to create it. We had a month, but really it was more like two weeks for us because we had to gather everyone together from the provinces, which took time. However, we managed to pull it together thanks to their commitment to racing against the clock to get the work done on time,” Huot Dara, Phare Ponleu Selpak’s executive director, tells The Post.
An extraordinary amount of effort was put into the production to deliver it so quickly, both on and off-screen. Choreographing the performance and then making it come to life by drawing up plans, painting the sets, sewing the costumes and putting the makeup on the performers was one aspect, while another was the use of computer animation in the video and scoring the soundtrack for it.
It’s almost too good to be true that such a polished and impressive presentation was prepared in just two weeks time, and yet that is definitely the case.
Dara says that it helped that they have actually produced videos like this one several times previously but Freedom is a Summer Blossom differed from those in that they are used to being given a topic, theme or storyline to work from but with this they were allowed to take control of the entire production and create whatever they wished.
“Obviously, this is not the first time we’ve made a video but it was actually the first time that we had total freedom to choose the topic and theme for the performance and production. But it was for the US’ Independence Day so the only thing we felt was required of us was to make it something related to freedom and to use the US flags colours in the design, but the rest was up to us to decide,” says Dara.
The team sat down to discuss the topic and came up with a mixture of imagery that was related to Cambodian culture and identity while also celebrating freedom in honour of America’s Fourth of July holiday.
The lotus was used in the video because of the flower’s significance all throughout Cambodian history as an offering to Buddha. The leaves of the lotus are both dirt and water-repellent, so it has further meaning as a symbol of purity, fidelity, creativity and enlightenment.
The lotus flower has special significance in Khmer mythology and the ancient Khmer empire as numerous carved reliefs at Angkor Wat depict Apsara dancers on lotuses.
“The lotus has always played a crucial role in Cambodia’s culture. There’s a story about a girl coming out of the lotus, which is the main plot in the video. Then we use the US flag’s colours of red, white and blue to symbolise the blossoming of a life of freedom. What we wanted to indicate is that a life of liberty is a colourful life, enjoyable life and a harmonious life living in a community with one another,” the executive director says
When they finished the video and sent it to the embassy for approval, Dara says he was amazed that they weren’t asked to make any changes to it, which is typical of other customers.
Dara says that everyone at Phare is very proud of the accomplishment and thankful to the US embassy for giving them the opportunity. These kinds of projects help fund their live performances and the development of talent while also giving them a chance to explore new ideas and further develop their technical use of visual arts, animation, graphic design and music.
“Our video initially was in the full US embassy’s video for the holiday which is about 20 minutes long, but because the quality of what we did was so good they also posted it separately and said they were happy to do so. To my surprise, it generated a lot of good publicity and attention, which is very satisfying,” he says.
Dara tells The Post that Covid has impacted his organisation severely in both Battambang and Siem Reap provinces and that without much activity happening with the school or with performances their financial situation has been difficult, but the teachers and artists have kept themselves busy learning new skills and finding creative ways to pass the time.
The Phare school in Battambang is nearly 30 years old now and it has more than 1,000 students who attend it normally, but regular classes aren’t currently permitted. They do have the ability to meet in groups of 10 or fewer people to rehearse and train though if they are working on a performance.
The Phare circus in Siem Reap is a social enterprise that employs the artists and students who graduate from the Battambang school, but with performances being banned and there being virtually no tourists anyways, they are having a hard time there.
“We still have a monthly stipend for them but it’s been two years and it has been tough. We don’t know how long the pandemic will drag out for but we encourage them to keep training and to stay fit and healthy, as well as to stay creative as they always are. We constantly hope to be able to return to the stage soon. We don’t want to give up on talented people like them and see them end up having to make ends meet as a tuk-tuk or moto driver,” Dara says with concern.
For more information or to donate to Phare Ponleu Selpak they can be contacted via their Facebook page:
The video they made for the US embassy is also available on Facebook: