Songs especially composed during the Khmer Rouge regime are finding new listeners among young people visiting the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, a non-profit collection of images and sounds from Cambodian history.
Nearly 29 percent of the 454 people who visited the centre in June this year listened to old songs from that era at the free library, said research analyst Nuth Leak.
And the revolutionary songs were more popular even than movies from that era showing Khmer Rouge leaders in action, he said.
Most of the visitors were young people browsing old TV dramas, movies, photos, audio files and music, according to the figures.
And they are typically young Cambodians from the provinces who are studying at university in Phnom Penh, said Bophana’s research analyst Chea Sopheap.
“They are curious about the nation’s history during the Khmer Rouge regime.”
More than 130 recordings of revolutionary songs are held at the archives, but almost nothing is known about the artists or composers, historians say, because so many died during 1975-1979.
“Visitors want to know the words that people used in the revolutionary times, so they can understand for themselves what happened and what people did during those times. These revolutionary songs can also reflect the lives of people at the time,” he says.
And because they haven’t heard the songs before, the tunes may have a certain appeal.
Their lyrics deal with the revolution, urging people to stay consistent in their ideals to educate people, build reservoirs or grow crops, says Chea Sopheap.
Rin Raksa, a 21-year-old salesman, says he likes to visit the Bophana library sometimes to listen to old songs about Cambodia, not just those during the Khmer Rouge era.
“After I listened to the Khmer Rouge songs, I began to think that the Khmer Rouge regime was not all bad. The songs really educated people,” says Rin Raksa.
The Khmer Rouge left behind just 16 pieces of film footage, says Bophana archive manager Than Thanaren.
“If we examine some films that the Khmer Rouge chose to shoot, you would see some pictures look good, so the film was probably shot by a professional cameraman. But at the same time, some scenes were recorded again and again, so it’s likely they were filmed by learners.”
She says that most films in the centre’s possession were unedited video clips, showing top leaders when they held meetings. But one propaganda film survives showing the Khmer Rouge educating children at primary school or training young people to be electricians. It was edited and dubbed in the Khmer language.
None of the films gives any information about the producers, cameramen or film locations, said Than Thanaren.
But scenes of workers in black building dams may look familiar because documentary makers have often bought a licence to use the footage from Bophana in their own films, she said.
The Bophana centre, which was opened in 2006, owns films shot from 1899 to the present day, aiding researchers in all kinds of Cambodian culture, traditions or beliefs.
The audio and visual archives are available in three languages, Khmer, English, and French with free entrance at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre (64 Street 200, Phnom Penh) from Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 6pm, and on Saturdays from 2pm.