A DOCUMENTARY film on the ancient Khmer martial art bokator, formally known as labokator, will be screened tonight at the French Cultural Centre (CCF) in Phnom Penh.
The 50-minute film, titled Une Breve Histoire du Boxkator (A Brief History of Bokator), was directed by Daniel Perrier, a French artist and instructor at the School of Fine Arts in Nantes.
Perrier shot footage for the documentary during a previous visit to Phnom Penh, and now he is back for an extended stay to take part in a series of art projects at CCF.
The artist said he became interested in bokator after he met San Kimsean, a coach of the martial art, in August 2008. The more Perrier learned about bokator from the coach, the more intrigued he became.
“When I came to Cambodia I met San Kimsean by chance, and as we talked he told me about labokator,” Perrier said. “I knew about martial arts like kung fu and judo, but now I have learned about labokator. I think it is not only a martial art, but also the art of self-defence with real tactics.”
According to oral tradition, bokator dates back to the ninth century and was used to fight enemies on the battlefield. Legends say the technique was created by Khmer farmers who lived near the forest and had to learn to fight wild animals with weapons and bare hands – thus the various bokator techniques that mimic the movements of animals such as tigers, horses and crocodiles.
As an artist, Perrier was not interested in making a traditional documentary. Though the film does deal briefly with the history of bokator, it mostly focuses on different aspects of the training process. Using long, unedited shots of students learning basic movements at the Bokator Academy of Phnom Penh, the director allows the viewer to meditate on both the beauty and the rigour of the sport.
“I wanted to document an old Khmer practice, but I also wanted to show how they can re-create information when there are so few teachers,” he said.
“Labokator originated in the ninth century … but under the Pol Pot regime most of the next generation of practitioners were killed. So now there are very few young people involved, and the expert trainers are too old,” he said.
As a result, Perrier said, the coaches have invented a “new process of teaching” in which even intermediate-level practitioners are drafted to teach novices.
“I was really interested by this way of teaching. If they wait for an instructor, an old one with experience, they will be waiting for a long, long time because labokator is a very complex art. The progress is step by step by step,” he said.
Perrier said he made the documentary with very little money, using only a small video camera.
He added that he plans to sell copies of the documentary on DVD for US$25, with $20 going to support bokator students in training and $5 to fund his next video project.
“Next summer I also plan to bring students from France to collaborate with students in Cambodia to learn more about labokator under the sponsorship of the MAC/VAL Museum in Paris,” he said.
Une Breve Histoire du Boxkator will be screened tonight at 7pm at the French Cultural Centre, 218 Street 184, in Khmer with French subtitles.