** One wonders if any of the film directors who attended the Gala opening
of the Southeast Asian Biennial Film Festival held at the Royal Palace last Sunday
realized that the event itself, in light of the massive slaughter which took place
100 meters up the road where the blood was still drying, could not have been scripted
more bizarely for film adaptation then if Franz Kafka had written the text himself?
Several hundred diplomats, visiting dignataries, government officials, film starlets,
Festival jurists, members of the Royal family and a gaggle of schmoozers showed up
in their dashing tuxedos and flowing silks at 6 PM on the dot. The show must go on,
as they said, and it did.
But the visiting VIPs probably missed the tangled sub-plots. Once in the Throne Hall,
passing the resplendant honor guard, for an audience with Queen Monineath, a buzz
was in the air. Ambassadors and reporters exchanged nervous glances and chatted in
hushed tones. Were the tanks on the move from Takhmau? Had Rainsy gone into hiding?
Would the night get even uglier than the morning? Was all this - Oh Dear God! - really
happening just when the Kingdom was trying to put on a reconciled face to the outside
Those in the know were dumbfounded. Those in the dark were awed by the Throne Hall's
beauty and sense of historic majesty, a glittering panoply of brightly colored murals
covering the walls and ceilings which few people ever get to see.
Ranariddh and Hun Sen had both cancelled, but their wives were there with tentative
smiles. A few reporters paced nervously in the aisles, working their mobile phones
to see if the drama would unfold further. Word came in that Ranariddh had sent a
letter to Hun Sen asking him to do nothing until a full investigation was completed.
Hun Sen had signed. Another ugly stand-off had been avoided. Donor's heads shook
with both relief and exasperation.
The Queen gave her blessing and the crowd moved to the open air pavillion, passing
young girls tossing flower petals on well-heeled toes, the scent of jasmine adding
a bit of fragrant intoxication to the air.
"Norodom Sihanouk, King and Filmmaker" was screened with Kir Royales served
during the intermission. King Sihanouk's own "An Apostle of Non-Violence"
followed: a tragic tale depicting the Cambodia of 1994, wracked by greed, brutality
and senseless war.
Some in the audience gasped at the scene when a government soldier, carrying the
severed head of one of his enemies, is stopped by the monk, the Apostle, and asked
"Why?" One Parisian film critic exclaimed "This is obscene!"
He looked even more stunned when it was quietly explained that the script was based
on fact, and that a KR head had been propped on the wall of RCAF headquarters in
Battambang in 1994.
The film ends with the Apostle dying as he tries to stop a battlelfield engagement.
The last scene shows his body lying between that of a government soldier and one
of the rebels. His final words were: "Why do Khmer keep killing Khmer?"
But that was then, three long years ago, and now is......different? After the films,
the assembled audience strolled to the garden behind the King's residence for dinner,
meandering along quiet pathways in the cool night air under trees that sparkled with
lights, the palace grounds serene and neatly manicured. To any newly arrived visitor
it must have seemed like a page out of some exotic fairytale, an oasis of royal mystique
in the fabled Orient. To old hands it was a struggle to enjoy the ordered calm. Thoughts
The guests wandered to their seats. Those following the events of the day quickly
compared notes and concurred that darkness - not unexpectedly - was afoot once again
in the Kingdom. The Queen arrived and took her place at the head table between Princess
Marie and Lok Chumtiev Bun Rani. Smartly dressed waiters and waitresses poured the
wine and brought the first course: Symphonie de canard landais en quatuor. The conversation
was casual and polite; greetings exchanged,, each table warming up to the sumptous
meal ahead and the soothing sounds of the symphony orchestre and choir in the background.
But the starkness of the day could not be avoided. With the arrival of the Pavé
de saumon confit sur chiffonnade d'epinards au beurre rouge, the issues were fully
engaged. Who was responsible, where had Cambodia gone wrong, what was the remedy
for the continued bloodshed? Would elections be held, was Hun Sen a communist, Sam
Rainsy a fool; was civil war around the corner?
By the time the Mignon de boeuf en spirale de pancetta aux nuances balsamiques was
deftly served the debate was in high gear. Movers and shakers were shifting tables,
adding a bit of spice to well-tread arguments that were falling on deaf ears. The
Chateau Noaillac, Medoc, 1993 was loosening up tongues. Old terrain, stock formulas
and untested theories were mixed up with new tidbits of fresh data, quips of gossip
and idle speculation.
The hoi polloi of Phnom Penh's foreign and domestic elite were doing what they do
so often: trying to figure what the hell is going on, a national past-time where
so often there seems so little light at the end of a tunnel being built so generously
with over $500,000 million in foreign aid every year.
The coffee was served, the Queen bid a most gracious farewell, chatting with friends,
thanking the musicians personally for their performance, maintaining an aura of dignity
in such a public forum held on such a troubled day.
The visitors walked out to the front gate to an army of waiting limos. The streets
were dead calm. Those who live here said goodnight: "Let's touch base soon.
Let me know if you hear anything." For those who came from afar, its likely
they went back to their hotels with memories of a splendid evening that will last
for a lifetime.
Alan Delon missed the entire extravaganza, but nobody seemed to care. The man who
had been the talk of the town only a few days before had long since been eclipsed
by the nameless numbers of those so mercilessly cut to pieces just 16 hours previously.