Queering Cambodian Tradition: Award-Winning Documentary Screens At CSULB Festival Thursday

Prum

This Thursday, the CSULB Department of Anthropology is hosting the Human Cinema Film Festival, beginning at 4:00PM in the Beach Auditorium, which is located on the lowest level of the Student Union. The festival features student-made short films that explore a variety of ethnographic topics, including marine animal rescuers, body modification, people who create things to sell on Etsy, a retelling of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and the food movement. 

The festival culminates, at 7:30PM, with a screening of two award winning films. The first is Virtual Me: Gender and Identity in World of Warcraft, followed by From the Heart of Brahma, a film about Prumsodun Ok, a Cambodian-American dancer, choreographer, and teacher who uses traditional dance techniques to create new narratives that reflect his queer identity.

Now, a moment of full disclosure: I created music for the soundtrack of From the Heart of Brahma. Furthermore, I introduced Robert Douglas, the film's director, to Prumsodun Ok. Lastly, Robert and I were musical cohorts in Ain Soph Aur, a performance and recording project that lasted for nearly 5 years. Still, I'm a huge fan of Ok's work, and the film does a beautiful job of sharing his journey and artistry, so I'd be writing about it anyway, even if I wasn't involved.

Since the film's release earlier this year, it has been accepted into a number of important film festivals, including the prestigious Cambodian International Film Festival, the Austin Asian American Film Festival, and the SoCal Film Fest. Even more, it has also been accepted into the Society for Visual Anthropology's 33rd Annual Film and Media Festival in Washington, DC, in December. On Saturday, November 8, it earned 2nd Place in the CSU Media Arts Festival's documentary category.

Douglas, in numerous screenings, has received lots of positive feedback about the film.

"People find the film extremely heartfelt and emotional," he said. "One thing I always hear people comment on is the human rights aspect. Prum's focus on including the idea of same-sex love in Cambodian Classical Dance is really powerful for people."

Some people, used to a more traditional narrative style, have expressed disappointment that the film lacks an obvious central conflict, but Robert rejects this.

"This film has a myriad of conflicts," Douglas explained. "Those include the post-genocide survival of an art form, an artist's struggle to be an artist, and the artist's struggle with innovation."

Douglas graduated with a BA in Human Geography and a minor Anthropology. He is currently working toward an MA in Applied Anthropology with a visual emphasis at CSULB. His mentor, Dr. Steven Rousso-Schindler, Associate Professor of Anthropology, explained that, with documentary films, the core mission is to focus on the story, but the starting point for ethnographic films is the culture.

"It's from this starting point that an ethnographic story gets built," Dr Rousso-Schindler explained. "Sometimes, as is the case with Robert's film, ethnographic films are character driven and the cultural aspect of the story comes through more subtly by understanding the main character of the film. But just as often—if not even more so—the point of an ethnographic film is to tell a story about a culture."

"In visual anthropology we feel this is necessary in representing the subject matter and culture properly," Douglas continued. "This is a practice that was brought to the production of From the Heart of Brahma. Additionally, as anthropologists, we strive to have a deeper threshold of understanding across cultures, dropping as many of our own biases—and the wider culture's biases—as possible.

"It's within the subconscious that some of the deeper interpretations of art and culture exist. Because cultures are laden with so many social norms, these ideas often get repressed not only by artists and individuals, but by entire cultures. So, it is important to be able to explore what the deeper meaning and soul of the subject matter may be."

Douglas' decision to abandon traditional documentary narrative resulted in some early rejections, including one from the home-grown Cambodia Town Film Festival but, since then, the film has been receiving broad praise and acceptance.

"I feel like art needs to serve a purpose for society," Douglas said. "If it doesn't serve a purpose, it's rather pointless. That may be a harsh statement, but it's absolutely how I feel. For the message of Prum's story to be reaching such a wide audience, as controversial as his art may seem to some, shows that people's minds are open to new possibilities."

Prumsodun Ok dismissed the notion that traditional art forms are static.

"Tradition is, by nature, creative and inventive," Ok said. "Old dances are constantly being redefined and reinterpreted and new dances are constantly being created for different occasions. All of the dances reflect and shape the society that they exist in. Tradition is like a river that keeps on flowing and moving and changing directions. Today, in Cambodia—a country with an overwhelming youth population—people are growing more aware and excited about contemporary arts. They want to see the culture and traditions passed on to them have meaning and relevance in their daily lives and future."

Douglas admits that the making of this film was transformational. It allowed him to discover, first hand, the power of film to highlight the intersection of art and social justice.

"Now, I realize that anything is possible and, if I think someone has an important story to tell, I can make that happen. The barriers are feeble in comparison to the reward. We all have the strength to produce something powerful and thought provoking.

"For example, When I was filming for the Khmer Rouge scene of From the Heart of Brahma, I noticed limbless musicians performing for tourist donations in front of Cambodia's most sacred national treasures—the temples of Angkor Wat. The musicians are all land mine victims, and the land mine problem is a human rights issue dear to my heart. Being a musician, and being extremely interested in the music of other cultures, my interest was piqued even further. 

"So our next project, called Calling Mother, Calling Father! [pictured above], will explore the lives of these musicians and their families while using experimental animation to weave in their personal narratives, the history of war and genocide, and the importance of art, music and mythology in Khmer culture."

Parking can be tricky at CSULB, but $5 permits are available in, and valid for, most lots in the school's lower campus. Plan to arrive early, as it can be a bit of a hike at times. Of course, bicycles and busses are a great way to avoid the cost of parking, and the headaches that come with it. Long Beach Transit routes 81, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96 ZAP, 121, 171 and 173 all make stops there, as does the MTA 577 Express and OCTA routes 1, 50, and 60.

For more information about the film, check out the movie's offical facebook page. There's also a facebook event page for Thursday's festival. Read an interview with Dr Rousso-Schindler and Dr. Scott Wilson who, together, run the Visual Anthropology program at CSULB. 

Read a number of articles about Prumsodun Ok, including an interview with him about the 10 year anniversary of Khmer Arts Academy, and 5 Questions asked when he was invited to speak at the 2011 TED Conference. Lastly, read a piece about Threads of a Tonal Dream Tapestry, a microtonal music festival, and Robert Douglas' first collaboration with a member of the Cambodian community, Master Ho.  



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