Animals such as buffalo were often sacrificed in the belief it would help an ill person recover from sickness, as seen in the film Anger of the Spirits. ADHOC
DANISH film director Thomas Weber Carlsen managed to film the life and traditions of indigenous Tampuan people living in mountainous Ratanakkiri province in northeast Cambodia 10 years ago.
Today, his film is perhaps among the last traces of Tampuan traditions, who strongly believed in evil spirits and sacrificed animals such as water buffalo and crocodiles to appease spirits that they believed caused illness.
Anger of the Spirits captures the daily lives of people in five villages who lived around volcanic lake Yeak Loam in 2001.
At a screening last weekend at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, Carlsen explained that the lake was a storehouse of sacred spirits for the Tampuan people. However, since the lake became a tourist attraction and land concessions were granted in the province, most of the indigenous tribespeople were moved.
“There were a lot of land concessions to private companies and government officials or soldiers took their land. It’s still a problem, even today,” said Carlsen.
Tampuan people make up 24 percent of the ethnic minorities living in Ratanakkiri province, said the director. Carlsen explained that he called his film Anger of the Spirits because he noticed the Tampuan believed strongly in spirits, who lived in trees, fields or water.
When anyone became sick or died, they sacrificed an animal to appease the spirits’ anger, he said.
“It was difficult for me to film the recording, especially when one man kills a water buffalo. That was very hard for me. I tried to hold the camera very stable and just record what happened and afterward when I looked at the images for editing, I felt terrible about what was happening there. I think that must be a hard way for that buffalo to die. But I could not defend them from killing this animal.”
In the film, a village medium called Lon Dom says that the sacrifice was necessary after a huntsman shot a crocodile with his crossbow. He failed to catch the crocodile because it sank to the bottom of the lake. Water spirits then visited his wife asking her to heal the crocodile, the old woman explains to the camera.
“We sacrifice animals to exchange with the sick person. Let them take the life of a buffalo instead of a human,” says Lon Dom.
Carlsen said he feared their culture and language would one day die, along with the lake they have already lost.
He particularly loved their dancing and traditional musical instruments of drums, flutes, and gongs.
In the film, young Tampuan boys Pon Duin and Leang Venai are shown learning Khmer and the English language at a state school. They say they want to study in further education, although their fathers disapproved of this.
Said Carlsen: “They see the value of education in its ability to help them maintain their culture and bring it with them across the border of modernization.”
He finished his film in 2002, and his first audiences were the Tampuan villagers. Anger of the Spirits has also been seen in the United States and Carlsen’s home country of Denmark.
Now it’s available for viewing at the Bophana Centre, joining the prized collection of films, documentaries and interviews recording Cambodia’s rich and varied past.