OLD STORIES, NEW MEDIA: CAMBODIAN TELE/VISIONSNico Mesterharm | Author/Director
I was born in Hamburg, Germany in the year of 1967, however I was raised in Berlin. Both of my parents were journalist, who early in my life bought me a second-hand children’s library, which, as a matter of fact, I still have in my possession. As soon as I was able to read for myself, I would go to that library and enter into the colorful fantasy worlds created by reading Grimm`s fairytales, legends, and myths and later Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. By the age of sixteen I was writing my own stories and eventually became a journalist and storyteller like my parents.
When I was growing up there were only three television channels in Germany. Videos, DVD’s, the Internet, and play stations would all come later. Parents monitored our watching and we saw only what the older people wanted us to see. I feel our limited access to the forms of entertainment that are now available, made us more curious about life and helped to develop our listening and observation skills. The “Third Millennium Kids“ live in a different kind of world, with 24-hour commercial cable television viewing, often in their own rooms, and personal computers, hooked to Internet connections, that allow them access to more information than they will ever be able to absorb in their lifetime. Many children in primary school now have mobile phones to text messages and e-mails to their friends. Everything, it would seem, is available and accessible to them, at the touch of a button, yet many of them are becoming bored.
In 1997 I began working as a filmmaker. My first television documentaries dealt primarily with adolescents from various cultures and social backgrounds. I wanted to find out what they knew about their origins; what had they been taught by their elders? I started a media initiative group called KROSSOVER to develop interactive model projects where children, who are the main characters in the production, directly participate in the developmental process of the documentary. Consumers become producers and generate their own ideas by using pictures or video cameras. They than compete in events throughout Europe and Asia.
In 2004 our new multi media project called COM.PASSION made it’s premiering as part of the official program for the 15th World AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, along with over one hundred other participants from 12 different countries. For nine days there were multi-cultural films, performances, and panel discussions focused on anti-AIDS-work. One of the main topics was the situation of women and children in South-East Asia. My first confrontation with these issues as a filmmaker was while filming the documentary “Joy’s House” (2000), which is about an AIDS project in the north of Thailand.
A. BATTLE FOR LIFEThe Television Documentary “Battle for Life”, a 26-minute film done for the European Cultural Program “ARTE” in 2003, was filmed in Cambodia, the poorest country in Southeast Asia. With over 200,000 Cambodians (Khmer) infected with the HIV Virus, it has the highest rate of infection in the region. The civil war, which lasted nearly 30 years and ended with the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge, destroyed much of Cambodia’s infrastructure. The average annual income for the nearly 13,000,000 Cambodians is less than $300.00. Forty percent of the women and twenty percent of the men are illiterate and only one out of eight children go further than the fourth grade in school. Only one third of the population has access to clean water.
In Takeo, one of the countries poorest provinces, the American Missionary and Vietnam-veteran Wayne Matthysse and Vandin San, a Khmer Buddhist, co-founded PARTNERS in COMPASSION, the first multi-religious Aids-Center in Cambodia. Located on the temple-grounds of “Wat Opot” you will find a Hospice, Crematorium, residential buildings, and a school. In 2003 the GLOBAL FUND and organizations like MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERS began supplying Anti Retro Viral drugs to many of the patients, resulting in better health and longevity of life. “In the beginning we could only offer companionship to the dying,” explains Wayne Matthysse “but now we must help them back to a life of independence by providing skills training for our adults and schooling for our HIV Positive Children. Discrimination is still a big problem for children who are HIV Positive or whose parents have died of AIDS and many schools prohibit these children from attending classes. Opportunities for learning are further limited to orphans because the grandparents may have died during the war.”
From the many interviews I held during the production of the film, which lasted several months, I discerned that not only does Cambodia mourn the death of over 2,000,000 of it’s countrymen, but it also has lost it’s historical past. The Social structure and Cultural identity have been destroyed. Everything that the UNESCO-Convention defines as “Intangible Heritage” seems to have been lost. Literature, music, dance and rituals are all but forgotten by the over 50% of the population that is under 15 years of age. The young Khmer seem to know almost nothing about their past. They are offspring of the present Globalization but without a background. Their lack of history is seen as one of the largest obstacles in the process of reconstructing this destroyed country.
B. CONCRETE VISIONSOn April 17, 1975, thousands of Phnom Penh residents celebrated in the streets as victorious Khmer Rouge troops entered the capitol. This joyous celebration, however, was not because the people of Phnom Penh were supporters of the Khmer Rouge; instead, they felt great relief that the five-year civil war had now come to an end. But hope quickly turned to fear as residents noticed that the Khmer Rouge troops weren't celebrating with them. Embittered and toughened after years of brutal civil war and American bombing, the Khmer Rouge marched the boulevards of Phnom Penh with icy stares carved into their faces. The troops soon began to order people to abandon their homes and leave Phnom Penh. By mid-afternoon hundreds of thousands of people were on the move. "The Americans are going to bomb the city!" was the answer given to residents if they asked why they had to leave Phnom Penh. No exceptions were made - all residents, young and old, had to evacuate as quickly as possible. As the Khmer Rouge knew well, there were no American plans to attack the city. The deception was a ploy to get people into the countryside, away from the urban confines of the city. The Khmer Rouge believed that cities were living and breathing tools of capitalism in their own right - KR cadres referred to Phnom Penh as "the great prostitute of the Mekong." (David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History)
The goal of the Maoist-nationalistic KR was the creation of a strong farmers-state without academic elite, religion and currency. People wearing glasses were beaten to death, books burned, libraries, archives, and schools destroyed. Personal belongings, emotions and even the wearing of bright colours were forbidden. The new rulers hide from the people behind the pseudonym “Angkar” (Organization). No one was allowed to see them. The Executioners were mainly child soldiers who had been brainwashed. As in the sense of George Orwell’s words, it was well known that: “Angkar sees everything, Angkar knows everything, and Angkar has to be unconditionally obeyed”.
Three years, eight months and twenty days after the Khmer Rouge takeover, the Vietnamese came in and occupied the county until 1989. The West condemned this as Intervention in the self-determination of free people. The United Nations, which is controlled by the USA, held Pol Pot’s chair in the national assembly open, even though the cruelty that the Khmer Rouge ravaged on it’s countrymen was well documented. Inside the former torture camps, piles of dead bodies were found. The elite had been eliminated. Engineers, Teachers, Pharmacists and Judges no longer existed, there were only 19 Doctors who survived the battles. The country, that had been known as the “Switzerland of Southeast Asia” during the 60s and was a successful exporter of rice, pepper and other foodstuffs, was forced to start from scratch again.
The architect Vann Molivann, who survived the ordeal in Swiss exile, returned in 1991 at 80 years of age. Today, his buildings still play an important role in the character of the city of Phnom Penh. In April of 2005 Helen Grant–Ross, an Art historian and architect from the NGO (Non-governmental-organisation) “Khmer Heritage”, and I, interviewed Vann Molivann for the on-going documentary project “Concrete Visions”. We showed him a 40-year-old film recording from the Cambodian Palace archive. The old man began to cry as he watched the rare footage of film, because it demonstrated the high developmental standards of the county, after the liberation from the French occupation, and also because it showed the unfulfilled dream of a Southeast Asian model state.
Today Cambodia sits wedged between the new economical powers of Thailand and Vietnam. Only the massive temple ruins of Angkor and numerous other stone monuments that dot the countryside are a reminder of the predominance Cambodia once played in this region of the world. In 2004 more than one million people visited Cambodia. Tourism is seen as a major determining factor in the economic development of the country. The foreigners not only bring the highly desired Dollars, Yen or Euros, but also their own style of living. The tourist-centres in Siem Reap (Angkor), Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh are opening Internet cafés, sports bars and go-kart-tracks. Copies of Hollywood DVDs and fake designer jeans are the best sellers in the market places. Cambodian media propagate consumer goods from the West, and almost every Cambodian teenager dreams of a mobile phone with an integrated camera.
LIFE“S A BEACHOnly since 1998 has it been possible to travel without too much danger. Cambodia’s coastline is over 360 kilometres long and remains one of the least developed bathing regions of Southeast Asia. Our TV- Documentary “Life’s a Beach” (WDR, 2006) led the viewers to the country”s only deep-sea-port Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Siam. There 14-year-old Soua sells fruits to finance her family as well as her own education, which includes the Khmer-school, English and Japanese lessons, and a computer course. Day after day, in temperatures which can get over 35° C, she walks many kilometres of the beach. On her head she carries a basket, which can weigh as much as five kilograms when loaded with fresh pineapple, mangos and watermelon. She sells them to the tourists. Soua told us, “I can earn up to 10 Dollars on a good day. I want to become a doctor. If that does not work out, I will apply for a job in a hotel.”
In 2004 the first 5-star-luxury hotel opened in Sihanoukville and “Sokha Beach” where Soua grew up was privatised for hotel guest only. Soua now lives with her parents and siblings in a small house close to the city centre. Her father is an alcoholic; her mother at one time worked as a photographer on the beach, taking pictures of tourists at sunset. Today however, nearly everyone carries their own digital camera and so there is little money to be earned. She tried to go into business for herself by opening a small restaurant, but it failed and the debt she incurred is still unpaid. Soua is now making the main contribution but she does it with a smile because she accepts the role the Cambodian society has given her by tradition. It is customary that children from the ages of eight to ten start supporting their household to refund their parents for their fostering. This is especially true for the girls, who often have to leave school early since they will never be anything more than just a mother and housewife anyway.
There are over 600 girls in Sihanoukville who sell fruit, sarongs, coral, and chips. Many of them hope for more in life, even if it is only marriage to a foreigner. Many girls leave state school early for this reason (in contrast to the protagonist Soua), to be able to save money for English lessons, which cost about 4 dollars per month. They are not very interested in local ethics and customs, wearing baseball caps and Britney Spears T-shirts and asking their beach customers for detailed descriptions of their homelands. Curiosity and naivety make these girls and boys easy prey for paedophiles, who, due to the widespread corruption in Cambodia, are often able to operate unnoticed.
In the past, when village communities were still intact, this situation would not have occurred. The elderly looked after the children, who were committed to politeness and obedience. The village elders were mediators, regulating relationships between and within families. Today they have lost most of that power. Most people care only for themselves and no one wants to take on any responsibility for others. Many of the survivors of the “Pol-Pot-Time” are traumatised. For this reason international and national aid organizations are giving high priority to Community Development Programs. The Khmer people must relearn how society and coexistence function if they are to be a part of the solution for the problems facing Cambodia today and the less outside help they rely on, the better it will be for their future.
BUILDING A DREAMIn February of 1999 the German architect Michael Weiss came to Cambodia for the first time, while on vacation with his wife Veronica. They were fascinated by the ruins of Angkor but moved by the numerous child beggars in the slums of the capital city of Phnom Penh. In the year of 2003 the Weiss family founded “Kinderhilfe Kambodscha” and began financing the local NGO “Jeannine’s Children Association” (JCA), which gives shelter to 86 orphans. Nearly all of them go to Khmer school and additionally, in the shelter they learn English, traditional dance and music, handicraft and farming. The Cambodian director of the shelter, Kong Sovannlay, and his 22 staff members know about the importance of a profound education. “If we don’t educate the kids properly they will become thieves or take drugs.” he states.
Michael Weiss, who is the father of two grown sons, has been visiting his Khmer stepchildren six times every year. Together with his wife he has purchased 2.5 hectares of land in Anloung Khrnang, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. There he is building a children’s village, which has been designed by the kids under his supervision. He states, “The kids are highly receptive – something we are not used to with German kids back home. Within our project work they learned a lot about how a community functions, in a playful way. The model that we built was so good that the authorities gave us a building permit without plans and drawings.”
“Building a Dream” is a long-term documentary, by the KROSSOVER team, that is following the unique aid program at Anloung Khmang from it’s beginning. What began, as a child’s drawing, will be followed through to the opening of the center sometimes in 2007. The JCA village will consist of everything that is needed to be self-supporting: Ten residential buildings, meeting and working rooms, kitchen, administration and gate house, generator, fish pond, school gardens, sporting and recreational facilities. “but we don’t want to spoil the kids,” says Michael Weiss, “we want to prepare them for living a simple life in the countryside. This is why we use natural materials like bamboo or thatched roofs. Construction workers are hired from the nearby village, where more than 15.000 people are living under difficult circumstances. We will help them to develop an infrastructure for themselves, by helping us to build and protect the children’s village."
Together with the International Academy for Innovative Economy for Social Sciences, Innovative Economy and Psychology (INA) at the Free University of Berlin, we are planning to hold Cambodia’s First National Children’s Conference. Our idea is to bring scientist, aid workers, and government officials into an open dialogue with the youth and children who have lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS. Street kids, fruit sellers, former child prostitutes and also students will discuss their educational needs as well as talk about the role of the Internet, Television and Videos in their future. How to link Aid Organizations with those individuals who need them the most will be one of the questions discussed.
On the 19th of January 2007 we openend the art / media / communication center META HOUSE in Phnom Penh under the COM.PASSION umbrella. Exhibitions along with special events and discussions will also display the different aspects of aid to the children of Cambodia and will provide information on how foreigners and tourists can actively contribute to these programs. NGOs will be invited to present their programs and through workshops we will develop concepts and projects that will be presented at the Children’s Conference in 2008. For more information about this you can visit the COM.PASSION Internet Homepage at www.com-passion.tv or www.meta-house.com.
We at KROSSOVER want to demonstrate that “Civic Journalism” is not just a phrase to us; it is the way we work. We report from a journalistic distance but also actively research our material at the ground level. It is our wish to get young people from Germany and all of Europe, actively involved in the process of bridging the gaps of misunderstandings between the various cultures and people groups living in the world today, so that the Globalized World of tomorrow, will be a better place for all of us to coexist.