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Young Khmers learn the craft of oral history

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Alberto Pérez Pereiro instructs the Transmissions 2015 participants. Kimberley McCosker

Young Khmers learn the craft of oral history

A group of young Cambodians spent this week in workshops learning about interviewing, ethics and the value of historical research. Now they’ve got a daunting task ahead of them: to interview those closest to them, on camera, about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge.

Called Transmissions 2015 and organised by the Bophana Centre and Center for Khmer Studies, the project is part of the eight-month-long Acts of Memory program that began in April, commemorating the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. 

Krisna Uk, executive director of the Center for Khmer Studies, explained that this particular project had come about after Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rithy Panh expressed an interest in organising a future film around intergenerational dialogue.

“He’s going to film the interviews and do something with them, although I’m not sure he knows exactly what yet,” said Uk.

It was only on the first day of the workshops that participants discovered that as well as learning the skills of an interviewer, they were expected to take part in the story themselves by interviewing their family.

For some, it was a daunting prospect.

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“The older generation don’t really want to speak about history and about politics, they just teach their children to earn a living, get on with your work,” said 25-year-old Ry Sangha, a monk and student of international relations.   

“The person I’m going to interview, I don’t know what level they’re affected by this period so it’s maybe hard and will hurt their feelings.”

Workshop leader Alberto Pérez Pereiro said there were many ethical questions that the participants had to be aware of before beginning their conversations. 

“They will be talking to people that have undergone tr­­emendous hardship and suffering.

Many survivors have strong feelings of guilt because of things they did in order to survive,” he said.

“It’s important to treat this information responsibly and make sure the person doesn’t feel he or she is being judged.”

Some workshop participants said that they didn’t anticipate that the conversation would be particularly painful.

Soeung Samnang, 29, an English lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that his parents generally spoke about the 1970s without it prompting strong emotional reactions.

“I think it is because no one close in the family got murdered,” he said.

Samnang explained that, in a strange twist of fate, the regime had been unintentionally kind to his parents when it transpired that their forced marriage was the same match family elders had been planning for them before the regime.

Samnang said that, while the workshop had shed considerable light on the reasons why it may be important to conduct oral history documentation, he still had reservations about the subject more generally.

“There are so many other things in Cambodia beside the Khmer Rouge and everyone who’s coming to Cambodia is focusing attention on the Khmer Rouge. It makes Cambodia look bad.”  

Pérez Pereiro said that the sessions would be relevant to participants in a broad range of endeavours.  

“The whole experience has been great,” he said.

“I’ve spent years conducting interviews in Cambodia and it’s very satisfying to be able to now be teaching these skills and sharing my experiences with aspiring Cambodian researchers.”

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