Anthropologist, clinical psychologist and sculptor Peg LeVine recently testified as an expert witness at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Over two decades of research trips to the Kingdom, she’s studied both cultural and spiritual destruction under the Khmer Rouge regime and the ethnography of communities from Phnom Penh to Battambang. While in town, LeVine sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about the places in Phnom Penh that have spoken to her
One of my favourite excursions, personally and ethnographically, is to go to community movie houses in Phnom Penh. My favourite neighbourhood cinema from the late 1990s is closed and, as far as I can tell, the Cine Lux may be among the last ones standing. It requires protection as a heritage site. It is a cultural feast for all the senses. Children, youth, adults and elders go in groups to watch horror films. They grab each others’ hands very tightly and scream aloud when haunting or raging spirits roam and possess characters or raise havoc in a village. The influx of shopping-mall cinemas in Phnom Penh that offer polished Hollywood or documentary films is quickly advancing. A new self-contained audience culture seems to be upon us. I ponder the loss of community-shared and induced expression should the Cine Lux close.
The National Museum
My most cherished place of all is the National Museum of Cambodia. While researching Khmer rituals during the late 1990s, I encountered the kindness of Dr Bertrand Porte, director of conservation and restoration. He invited me into the back room: the “sculpture conservation room” [to think]. There, Buddha head sherds sit like puzzle pieces on tables waiting for revival. When I am in [Phnom Penh], you will also find me at the National Museum on Sunday mornings. As a sculptor, I like to take wax or clay balls into the museum garden and sit on a bench to form a maquette. If you go there at dusk, you will hear the resident bats as they pour out of the rooftop.
Secondhand bookshops on Street 240
The secondhand bookshops in Phnom Penh, mostly on Street 240, I hope will always be there. They represent Phnom Penh’s nature as an intellectual gathering point. When I spent time in the city, I would browse through the books and pick one up and sit down at a café like the Shop and read. At cafés like that you meet all sorts of interesting individuals: painters, writers, musicians, poets and researchers. It’s a really refreshing and unique intellectual environment. It makes Phnom Penh special to me.
Chum Neas Hospital
I am a trauma psychologist, and many of the kids in Cambodia are second if not third generation survivors. Poverty, violence, birth defects . . . the list is long. And it is the rare centre that includes monks, traditional healers, not as an addendum but as part of the assessment process. Chum Neas was the psychiatric hospital used by the Khmer Rouge. Even today, people are wary of it. I have consulted there from time to time on child cases with intense trauma because they account for generational trauma, and include animist perceptions of trauma in their assessment and interventions, which is a brave thing to do – their scope is wider than even Buddhist-based practices.
Animist symbols in Phnom Penh’s back alleys
These symbols are a kind of spirit guard that wards off illness and harm. I was unsure of their meaning when I first saw them, in Battambang province, but catalogued them so I might determine if it was culturally relevant in other regions of Cambodia. I was told by some Cambodian mental health colleagues in Phnom Penh that these symbols only existed in remote regions. I wanted to verify this, so I asked my tuk-tuk driver – who I’ve known for over 20 years – if he had ever seen these symbols in Phnom Penh. He had. He took me to see some near the Royal University of Phnom Penh. They’re a symbol of the relationship between the cultural and cosmic fabric of Cambodia.