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Canadian couple's bokator documentary set for Phnom Penh premiere

A bokator practitioner demonstrates the Angkor-era martial art at a tournament at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium in 2016.
A bokator practitioner demonstrates the Angkor-era martial art at a tournament at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium in 2016. Sreng Meng Srun

Canadian couple's bokator documentary set for Phnom Penh premiere

Even as Cambodia vigorously pursues its bid to seek UNESCO recognition for bokator as an intangible cultural asset of humanity, a 97-minute documentary on this unique Angkor-era fighting style is set for a 6pm premiere at the Chaktomouk Conference Hall on Thursday.

Produced by Canadian filmmaker Mark J Bochsler and his wife Sandra, and titled Surviving Bokator, admission for the screening is free for those who arrive first to occupy half of the 570-seat theatre. After this, 5,000 riel will be charged for admission.

There are two more free showings planned over the next two days, first at Diamond Island (Koh Pich) at 6pm on Friday and at the French Institute at 3pm on Saturday.

Addressing a media conference in the company of National Olympic Committee of Cambodia secretary-general Vath Chamroeun and well known Bokator revivalist and grandmaster San Kimsean, director/cinematographer Bochsler said the documentary was eight years in the making and involved nearly five years of sporadic filming producing 400 hours of footage in all.

Production he said cost as much as $150,000 of their own money as most of the work had to be done in Canada, which was far more expensive.

“We went into very deep debt, and we are at a point where now we carry a big financial weight because of the film. But we are proud people. We thought since, as filmmakers, it was our decision to make the film, why should other people be giving us money,’’ Bochsler said

“Now we realise this film is of such great value for Cambodians and such great value globally. But we now need to raise more money to complete the film and get it ready for international screenings – and not just for smaller festivals but the bigger ones – and also be in a position to travel with the film to promote it during the 2018 season.”

“We are reaching out to the private sector in Cambodia. We are reaching out to the government for cooperation, not just in terms of money but in sponsorship,” he said.

“The partnership we began with the Bokator Federation and Grandmaster San Kimsean, and the partnership with the NOCC and its secretary-general Vath Charoeun are very important and concrete.

“What started as a small brick house is now a skyscraper for the world to see and to experience the unique Cambodian cultural heritage of bokator,” the Canadian filmmaker added.

(From left) Bokator grandmaster San Kimsean, NOCC secretary-general Vath Chamroeun and Canadian filmmaker Mark J Bochsler hold a press conference today.
(From left) Bokator grandmaster San Kimsean, NOCC secretary-general Vath Chamroeun and Canadian filmmaker Mark J Bochsler hold a press conference today. Sreng Meng Srun

Spelling out his plans for the future, Bochsler said the film to be screened on Thursday was somewhat rushed and needed to be upgraded on technical fronts such as sound design for international viewing and bigger festivals.

He said he plans to trim it down to 90 minutes for international viewing and introduce Khmer subtitles.

The characters in the film are active enthusiasts and performers, and the locations are those where this centuries old art of fighting was a way of life.

One significant segment shown to the press as an excerpt, was the participation of a Cambodian squad on the international stage for the first time at the 11th World Martial Arts Festival in the South Korean city of Chungju in 2010.

The scenes capture the essence of bokator and its great sentimental and emotional influence on the performers, as well as how well the world received the martial art form.

It was the life story of San Kimsean, which Bochsler came across while making a short film on the visual beauty of martial arts in general, that inspired the Canadian to focus his sights on bokator.

The passion began to grow as the Canadian couple, bringing up two children and working two jobs, kept going with the documentary despite the effort drilling a huge financial hole.

NOCC secretary-general Chamroeun said: “Their amazing persistence paid off in the end, and here we have a wonderful presentation that the world can see and Cambodians can be so proud of.

“We are happy to have this partnership with Bochsler and to see to it that the upgrades and adjustments to make it ready for a global audience and commercial distribution are done in the quickest possible time.’’

Grandmaster Kimsean, whose book on bokator was published in 2017 and who was among the leading figures to revive Cambodia’s unique fighting style, said it was heartening to see a foreign couple show such deep commitment to preserve and promote one of the Kingdom’s greatest cultural treasures.

Bokator practitioners demonstrate the ancient martial art at a tournament at Olympic Stadium in 2016.
Bokator practitioners demonstrate the ancient martial art at a tournament at Olympic Stadium in 2016. Sreng Meng Srun

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