Filmmaker overcomes childhood fear to document eerie Khmer funerary chanting

Filmmaker overcomes childhood fear to document eerie Khmer funerary chanting

Film student Neang Kavich hopes to reveal the beauty of traditional smot music, despite its association with death

I hope I can be one of those filmmakers who help revive khmer film and keep the arts alive.

NEANG Kavich says that when he was a child, he and his friends were scared every time they heard smot, a type of traditional Khmer chanting performed at funerals and characterised by eerily drawn-out syllables.

However, when he later found out that the chants are used not only at funerals but also on other occasions – including on the King’s and Queen’s birthdays and during other religious ceremonies – he began to hear the beauty of the music.

Neang Kavich spent six years studying music at Cambodian Living Arts and is now a first-year student of film at Limkokwing University.

This combination of knowledge prompted him to make a 15-minute documentary on smot with the aim of educating Cambodians about the art form and teaching them not to be afraid when they hear the chants.

“Also, our film industry has been in decline,” he says.

“I hope I can be one of those filmmakers who help revive Khmer film and keep the arts alive,” he adds.

He says he spent five months shooting the film on weekends and editing at night, under the guidance of professor Davy Chou, the creator of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer Group.

The finished documentary has already been screened at Meta House in Phnom Penh on February 11, and Neang Kavich says he plans to submit it to international film competitions.

He says that many Cambodians are unnerved by the first scene of the film, which consists of a black screen and the sound of smot chanting.

But as the documentary progresses and delves into the beauty of the sounds, audiences warm to the subject also find the chanting attractive.

In the film, Koeut Ran, an assistant smot teacher from Kampong Speu province, explains that the music is played at Khmer funerals to prompt people to think about the meaning of their lives.

Pheun Srey Pov, who learned the art of smot at Cambodian Living Arts in Kampong Speu province, said: “I was interested in learning smot because Cambodian people are scared of it, and I was very interested in learning about the meaning of the music and what is behind this fear.”

Although she is not certain that she will be able to make a living as a smot performer, Pheun Srey Pov said that her group from Cambodian Living Arts have been invited to perform in the US in the near future.

Yin Yean, the sole teacher of smot and sot (traditional poetry recitation) at Royal University of Fine Arts, said it was important for music students to learn how to recite and chant traditional songs and poems.

“These art forms will be lost in the near future if we do not care about them,” he said.

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