A mind blowing blend of drama, dance, modern circus techniques and real-time painting on live music tells the true story of how art could empower a generation marked by the Khmer Rouge regime and the Cambodian genocide.
Sokha, an elderly bent woman slowly walks towards me. Her legs are shaky, her pace slow. Once close, she carefully sits down, opens a thick book and cautiously blows the dust from the pages that have not been opened for a long time. Our eyes meet.
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I read sadness and sorrow, but above all strength and determination. Growing up during the violent Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia, Sokha has been haunted by war, death, grief and nightmares. This strong spirited woman is about to express her story that contains a vital message which needs to be passed onto the following generations. Surrounded by a few hundreds of spectators in the circus tent of Phare the Cambodian circus, in Siem Reap a stone’s throw from the ancient temples of Angkor, Sokha opens her heart and the story begins…
Two young musicians take us back through time to the happy days before the Khmer Rouge regime thanks to a cheerful tune on a fast beat: the teenager Sokha goes by her normal daily life, between rope-skipping with her friends making incredible stunts and attending classes set up as a comic excerpt.
Unfortunately, the change in music, the flashes of light striking, and the sounds of thunder announce a dramatic turn in history with the rising of the Khmer Rouge. On stage, the painter is darkening his canvas on which he previously painted a Buddha in warm colours with exploding bombs while everyone runs for one’s life.
One brave teenager keeps carrying out his balancing performance until the threatening Red Khmers show up, with their scary masks and black uniforms with a checkered red scarves. Handcuffed, the youngsters are tortured behind boxes, symbolising the slaughter at the killing fields. The happy years of Sokha seem to be a distant memory as she is left devastated on the ground.
Later, Sokha has survived the Khmer Rouge and is haunted by nightmares: a Khmer Rouge soldier appears and she gets entangled in a contortionist act in which their transforming bodies tell the story of the past.
Taking action herself to get freed from her haunting past, Sokha is now surrounded by the energetic teenagers dressed in bright colours. The tune is cheerful again, as the youngsters gather and encourage each other to do new tricks. In the background, the artist is painting a peaceful landscape of rapidly developing Cambodia.
Sokha writes her story about how the Khmer Rouge has changed her life and how through art, she overcomes her past and finds the strength to help others. Now a teacher, she empowers young adults finding their place in the community during this post-civil war period. Her grateful students carefully help her get seated again when she is old and shaky on her legs holding on her dear book. She turns the last page and her last words are a moving message of hope for the future, forgiveness of the past and gratitude for life.
Leaving the crowds speechless this mind blowing blend of drama, live painting, dance and modern circus techniques accompanied by live music is all the more moving as it is based on the true story of the creators of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus school in Battambang. The founders themselves grew up as refugees under the Khmer Rouge and were healed from their traumas through art. The show is entirely performed by graduates from the NGO circus school. Thanks to this fantastic initiative, Phare, the Cambodian Circus provides a job to many artists, raising the awareness about Cambodia’s history while funding the school in Battambang thanks to tickets sold to tourists.
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text, photographs & video)
Notes: The above video was recorded at Phare, the Cambodian circus, in Siem Reap, Cambodia by Best Regards From Far.
- Attending one of these truly inpiring shows in Siem Reap is an absolute must and will most likely remain one of the highlights of any trip to Cambodia! Please refer to Phare, the Cambodian Circus to order tickets in advance and check out our interactive map for the exact location.
- All performers are graduates from the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus school in Battambang where students perform several times a week. Having attended both shows in Battambang and Siem Reap, we still cannot decide which one we loved the best! We would recommend you to see both and to start with Battambang.
- A campus visit of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus school is also very interesting and comes highly recommended. Click here for more information.
- Donations are accepted to support the organization.
- For more about the Khmer Rouge, please refer to Cambodia’s most horrific history class: The S-21 prison in Phnom Penh and The killing fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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