June 2022 may be remembered as the moment Cambodian culture not only got back on its feet post-pandemic, but began to make its biggest international impact in decades.
The month began with the Tini Tinou Festival in Battambang province, which saw artists from France, Taipei and Thailand join Cambodian artists in a week of riotous circus creativity in Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Big Top. This was swiftly followed by the country’s most swaggering star, Vannda, being named by hip hop magazine “Lifted” as one of its top 10 artists, “the name on everyone’s lips around Asia”.
Now the month is ending with the acclaimed movie White Building securing a rare release in Thailand’s cinemas, while the Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF) returns with its largest ever programme.
The Cambodian arts scene may not have recaptured the vibrancy of the 60s, when singers like Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth were adored at home and admired overseas, and the country’s prolific film industry was championed by its movie-making King Norodom Sihanouk. But it is visibly more confident than in recent memory. What’s more, many key players believe greater success lies ahead.
“Cambodia had two cultural golden ages, during the Angkor era and the sixties,” says Sok Visal, whose work as a filmmaker and founder of the KlapYaHandz record label did much to pave the way towards recent successes. “I truly believe we can have a third golden age, but only when we give more value to arts and culture.”
In the past, language was considered the biggest barrier to Cambodian arts finding overseas audiences. However, the colossal recent success of Korean culture – ranging from cinematic triumphs like “Parasite” to commercial juggernauts like BTS – has shown that what “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho calls “the 1-inch barrier of subtitles” can be overcome.
Korea can inspire Cambodia in other ways. The springboard that launched Korean culture internationally was enormous support at home, and that’s what many artists believe is most needed here. Realistically, Cambodia won’t topple Korea from its cultural throne, but it can follow in its footsteps and make an outsized impact.
“My goal is to reach as many people as I can,” says Kavich Neang, the director of White Building, which explored social and economic change in Cambodia through stunning cinematography and powerful, award-winning performances. “I’m grateful to get international recognition, and the festivals definitely help promote the work, but I want Cambodians to see my movies above all. I want viewers to stop and reflect, see themselves, and ask questions about the present and future of the country.”
Neang was delighted when “White Building” moved from the arthouse circuit into mainstream Cambodian cinemas for an impressive six-week run, but he would still like to have seen bigger audiences in the movie halls. “I was grateful for the support we got from the big cinema chains and our partners at Kongchak Pictures, who have done a lot to reach Cambodian audiences. But I think this country is still learning to appreciate arts and culture again, and more must be done. Cambodian Living Arts is pushing for the arts to be taught in schools, and I think that’s a good start.”
Arts non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak launched many of Cambodia’s artists and performers, as well as the famous Siem Reap circus. Its director, Osman Khawaja, agrees education is crucial. “Many of our students know little about art before they come to us, then they fall in love. What we need is for everyone in Cambodia to fall in love.
“That’s a major reason we host arts festivals like Tini Tinou. Since the Phare circus reopened, more local families are attending and enjoying shows, but the majority of the audience is still foreign. Many Cambodians simply haven’t discovered how exciting and enlightening a night enjoying the arts can be.That’s something that’s usually passed down through generations and that hasn’t happened in Cambodia for tragic reasons.
I think the private sector can play a major role in turning this around, by investing in and sponsoring artistic endeavours.”
Sok Visal agrees local culture is still developing, noting that “the modern era of music and movies is only about six or seven years old.” However, he believes everyone can play a part in helping Cambodia’s culture flourish soon, including artists, producers, businesses and individuals. “To build the third golden age, we need to get out of our corners and collaborate more.” His newest project is “Karmalink”, Cambodia’s first sci-fi movie, and was born from just such collaboration. “Artists also have to pursue creative values as much as commercial values. Banking on Cambodian creativity could be the key to a better future. We are a nation of artists, it’s written all over our history and our walls.”
Everyone reading this article can play their part too. Businesses trying to stand out in the feverishly competitive Cambodian marketplace can spend lavishly or they can spend smartly, by supporting artistic enterprises. When mobile operator Cellcard sponsored Phare Ponleu Selpak’s 24-hour circus fundraiser in 2021, they were rewarded with enormous media attention and an event that won a record-breaking 12 international awards.
Individuals can make an equally important impact, simply by showing up. Go watch a movie at the CIFF, check out current art exhibitions at Rosewood Phnom Penh hotel or Pi-Pet-Pi galleries, or be dazzled by a Phare circus show in Siem Reap. What could be more exciting than being both a witness and a contributor to Cambodia’s cultural renaissance?
Jaime Gill is an award-winning creative consultant with Box Clever Creative who has lived in Cambodia for seven years and worked with several creative organisations including Tiny Toones and Phare Ponleu Selpak.