Budding Indigenous Filmmakers Find Common Ground in Phnom Penh

3 min read
Students filming Kampong Thom residents on June 28. (Sunflower Film Organization)
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Kin Leang is living in a Phnom Penh house with five other budding filmmakers. The housemates are experiencing life in the capital together while also being trained in documentary filmmaking.

Leang, who is from the Mel indigenous group, had never been to Phnom Penh. Before moving to the city, he lived in Kratie province as part of a community of just about 300 people, nearly three-quarters of whom are Mel. The city was nothing like his forest-adjacent village.

“I was scared. It was my first time and I was alone,” Leang said of coming to the capital.

“Everywhere I look is just buildings. The air is just smoke. [Before] When things happened that I wanted to get away from, I could just walk off to the farm or forest. Here, I can’t do that.”

Leang and five other indigenous Cambodians are enrolled in a project by Sunflower Film Organization that teaches documentary filmmaking to selected students from underserved communities. Trainers hope their students can use these skills to document their communities and cultures. Little documentation exists on indigenous communities in Cambodia, and often a lot of it is produced by outsiders to these groups.

The communities are often on the margins of society with little to no access to education — almost none in their indigenous languages — very little political or civil society representation, and are affected by the government’s land policies that affect traditional customs like rotational farming and communal land ownership.

Misconceptions around indigenous lives and practices can often lead to discriminatory and harmful stereotypes.

Sien Sokny is from the Pear, or Por, indigenous group. She has heard Khmer people say that adults in her community “eat their own children” or are “cold-blooded murderers.”

“We are the Khmer Dam,” or original Khmer, she said. “We have been here for the longest time. Then the outsiders showed up.”

While all the students are from different indigenous groups, they share a common thread in their lived experiences: Their cultures, customs and languages are in decline. The fledgling filmmakers say their new skills will help document their culture and highlight challenges to their communities’ way of life.

“If we don’t protect our culture, we will lose it,” said Lean.

The students had their own stories to tell, from the loss of language to land rights issues to changing lifestyles in their communities.

Klan Tang is Jarai from Ratanakiri province and talked about 10 indigenous families who had their cashew plantations cleared by a private company. Tang also wanted to document debt-driven migration — faced by his uncle — with the money being used to buy drugs.

Horm Keasey, another indigenous Mel from Kratie province, wants to document the tumultuous balance between using traditional lands that are designated as protected.

Sum Sithen, the executive director of the organization and an instructor in the program, said Sunflower is not involved in advocacy of issues but only provides the tools needed by students to document their stories. However, about half of graduating students had indicated they wanted to use the filmmaking skills for advocacy, Sithen said.

For Leang, the indigenous Mel student, the learning curve has been steep. He said he did not know how to use a camera or computer when the training started but is now working on a documentary about Mel activists with disabilities working on land rights.

Sokny said her colleagues come from different groups but seem to have similar concerns.

“We have our differences, but there are parts that are similar, and parts that are completely different,” said the Pear student.

Making other ethnic groups aware and more sensitive to indigenous lives would help battle negative comments and stereotypes about these communities, Sokny added.

“We should live as ourselves, and tell others that we have abilities and are good people: People who respect rights and laws — in short, people who have enough values.”

The story was updated on Monday August 22 at 1:30 p.m. to correct the spelling of Kin Leang and a photo caption.

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