Further and Further Away: Environment and Identity in Cambodia

Interview

The short film “Further and Further Away” (Chhngai Dach Alai) by filmmaker Polen Ly which was screened at the Berlinale this year, is portraying a brother and sister who belong to the Bunong ethnic minority in Cambodia. After their family’s village in rural Cambodia was evicted due to the construction of a hydroelectric dam, they spent one last day in the village before they move to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh in search of a more prosperous life. We spoke with director Polen Ly and producer Daniel Mattes about the process of making the film, youth in Cambodia and the opportunities for independent film making in the country.

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The short film is portraying a brother and sister who belong to the Bunong ethnic minority in Cambodia.

Elaine Haller: Why did you choose the topic of hydropower dam construction and displacement for this short film?

Polen Ly
Filmmaker Polen Ly.

Polen Ly: I've been shooting a documentary in an indigenous village which was destroyed by the hydro-electric dam reservoir [of the Se San II dam] since 2014 and heard a lot of personal stories of the people there, but I was  not only interested about the construction of the hydropower dam that flooded the village  in 2017, but  more about the broken relationship between the villagers due to these developments. From 2014 to 2017, most of the villagers chose the compensation that was offered and moved to live in the resettlement area. There were only 53 families who still resisted to stay in the village because they didn't want to change their way of life or lose their dependable means of livelihood. These families could see that if they moved out, their traditional lifestyle would be changed completely.

So, when I was spending time in the area for the shooting of the documentary, there was this dynamic love and hate relationship between these two groups that both used to belong to the village. One group wants to let go of the past and move out and didn't want to face any conflict with the authorities. The other group still stands for what they feel is better for the independence of their livelihoods. This dynamic made me want to make a short fiction that tells the story of this broken relationship in a more fictional form. The two characters (a brother and sister) portray this separation between the traditional way of life versus progress, development and modernity. I believe that the film also tells the story of our world nowadays which is divided into two groups of people - a group that chooses to live this kind of very fast materialistic and fast life, chasing after one thing after another, and there's a group that chooses to live a more sustainable, slower life.

The hydropower dam on the Se San river, a major tributary of the Mekong river, in northeast Cambodia was completed in December 2018 after construction stared in 2013. Nearly 5,000 people, mostly indigenous people and other ethnic minorities - Bunong, Brao, Kuoy, Lao, Jarai, Kreung, Kavet, Tampuan, and Kachok- were displaced by the dam. (Human Rights Watch 2021)

How did you choose the setting?

Polen Ly: I would say that there is a link between me and the location, even though I didn't know the people before. I was born in a small village, also near a river and a forest. 30 years later, when I discovered this village, it somehow reminded me a lot about my childhood. Even though I didn’t speak the [Bunong] language, I saw something that I really connected with.  I felt this strong connection with the land and the people. After spending four years there [while shooting the documentary] it became more and more personal and connected with the subjects of my film.

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One last day in the village before moving to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh in search of a more prosperous life.

How was the film produced?

Daniel Mattes: Polen had been working on this short film script for a long time. There was an earlier form of it, some footage was shot in 2017, and by the time I joined Polen in 2020, the situation in the village had already changed a lot. The land was flooded to make the reservoir of the dam by then. It was impossible for the footage from the past to be used in whatever we were going to shoot. We got the Singapore International Film Festival’s Southeast Asian Shorts film grant, but then COVID hit. At that time, we thought we really needed to shoot the film because we thought we had this deadline in late 2021 to finish it and to show it at the Singapore International Film Festival. In the end, we were kindly given a year’s extension, and we got the chance to submit it first to the Berlinale, which turned out very well.

We planned to organize a real production crew with ten people to support Polen.

Daniel Mattes
Producer Daniel Mattes

Polen was in the village for some final research when the province was placed under lockdown. He couldn't actually leave the province because they didn't have any COVID there yet, and the villagers wanted to isolate themselves. I then sent some sound gear and some batteries and hard drives to Polen by courier service. Polen had his camera from his documentary research. He gathered the young villagers the actors, their relatives, other villagers he knew and made a small team. The shooting took longer than expected because Polen gave a crash course in filmmaking and team building to the villagers. Instead of four days it ended up being two weeks.

Polen Ly: There was a lot of film education that had to happen then (laughing).

Are you still in touch with the villagers? How have their life circumstances changed since then? What changes could you observe?

Polen Ly: I’m still in touch with some families over there. They are still living in the relocation village but some of their youngsters got married, and some of them departed to live in a new province or to work in different places. Most of the old people, they still live there. I think that's the story behind  “Further and further away”: when you get to know the old village for a long time and when you come to this new relocation village, you feel somehow a little bit heartbroken to see these very old women and men sitting in their houses doing nothing.

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The indigenous village was destroyed by the hydro-electric dam reservoir.

Slowly, within these four years since the relocation, some families also started to change their way of making a living. Some of them stopped producing rice, and became business persons, opening a grocery store. And for them now life is easier, they don't have to go to work anymore because other villagers are just coming, buying stuff from them. It's a little bit strange to see a person who used to work with mud on their hands now becoming a person who always counts money.

Daniel Mattes:The government might argue that they're getting people more access to diversified income, not just relying on the land which can be challenging. It's the idea of economic development that some people can get into commerce as opposed to agricultural work. Maybe this development is not so bad, but it's also definitely a commodification of their livelihood, that it's no longer about communal living they had before, living off the land or the forest, but now it's about getting people engaged with capital, with selling things, having bank accounts and all these things.

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There were only 53 families who still resisted to stay in the village because they didn't want to change their way of life.

The production company Anti-Archive that you are a part of, Daniel, is producing contemporary Cambodian and Southeast Asian films by local filmmakers from Southeast Asia. Can you tell us a bit more about the film scene in Cambodia and the work of Anti-Archive?

Daniel Mattes: The film scene is relatively new, and has a very good energy and lots of young filmmakers in their teens, 20s and 30s, who have lots of ideas and are becoming increasingly aware of opportunities to develop their stories and their skills. Cambodia today is all about audio visual culture, when it comes to news, social media, Facebook, et cetera. People don't really read press or books or anything, unfortunately, but so there is an opportunity to work in the commercial sector or making music videos or advertisements. And there's a good number of young filmmakers who make a living off of that. At the same time, however, about 30 feature films would be made in Cambodia a year on average. The vast majority of them, like 28 of them would be horror movies, ghost movies, or kind of melodramatic romantic movies.

When it comes to independent filmmaking, there are independent filmmakers like Polen who have been trying to make their way and meeting different producers and working with producers. There are people who have worked with the Bopanna Center, mentored by Rithy Panh and his production company. And then, there's Anti-Archive, which was founded in 2014 by Kavich Neang, a Cambodian filmmaker, Davy Chou, a Cambodian-French filmmaker, and Steve Chen, a Taiwanese-American filmmaker. Originally, it was a vehicle to produce their own first films. Then it developed and grew. We decided to start a fundraiser to raise funds for the production of “Echoes from Tomorrow” which was a project to produce three short films directed by three first-time female directors, and we ended up raising almost $30,000 in 15 days.  We were shocked because it showed that there is a lot of support for independent film in Cambodia and from our networks abroad. It was really a touching and affirming moment for what we were hoping to create.

Why the name Anti-Archive?

Daniel Mattes: The title of the company is an indication of what everyone is focused on: It’s not that we're actually against archiving. A couple of the films have archival photos in them even, but it's a more playful reaction to the fact that Cambodia is a country that both in the country and in terms of the gaze toward the country from outside, it's always about the suffering of the past, or about the poverty today. There's a lot of poverty porn especially in the works shot by outsiders about Cambodia. The founders of Anti-Archive came up with this title that was to say, we can focus on the changes and the things happening in Cambodia today and in the future, the dreams of young people in the future. Everyone was kind of sick of making films only focused on the past and on the suffering of the past, but at the same time, it was never intended that we forget the past. The films by Anti-Archive always have tried to make an effort to show the way that the past is still so present in Cambodia, but by focusing on portraying the present.

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The short film “Further and Further Away” was screened at the Berlinale 2022.

Cambodian society tries so hard to define a new Cambodia that it forgets itself sometimes -indications of the trauma or the way that the trauma is passed down through generations, the way that society today sometimes even replicates things that have happened in the past. All those kinds of themes come up in very different ways throughout film, some of them are more straight to the point, some of them are more clear about social issues happening today, like evictions in urban settings. Others can get added through new ways, or by focusing more on personal relationships and feelings to investigate the way that young people are choosing to live today. These young people are  the first wave of something new; they’re able to live, grow up and decide their own future in a totally post conflict setting without being tied to conflict. There's a lot of great ideas out there. And it's exciting to be a part of that.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me!


This article first appeared here: www.boell.de