Melbourne Festival – A Requiem For Cambodia: Bangsokol    

Melb Fest Requiem For Cambodia - photo by Tey Tat KengAustralians might know a little of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. But what do we know of the survivors, and what followed? We had a glimpse of this in A Requiem For Cambodia: Bangsokol, intended as an artistic response to the turmoil and trauma of those times.

In the tradition of Cambodian Buddhism, a ‘bangsokol’ is a white cloth placed over a deceased person at their funeral. It is also a funeral ritual in which removal of the cloth signifies the spirit moving on to rest in the next life.

Two of the driving forces behind the work, Dr Him Sophy and Rithy Panh, were children in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took power. Sophy’s music utilises a western chamber orchestra, an ensemble of Cambodian vocalists and instrumentalists employing traditional instruments, and the Taipei Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

Unlike a church requiem, here the music was accompanied by Panh’s contribution of images projected onto a screen. Sequences featured a combination of archival footage and abstract imagery intending to convey aspects of Cambodian culture.

The performance was prefaced by bangsokol-wearing people arriving on stage, each taking a rock from rubble to hand to performers at the front. After all performers had settled, many more people traversed the stage, ultimately taking seats at the rear of the hall.

I gave this just enough time and attention before the house lights went down to understand. From their ages and features, I surmised that we were watching Khmer Rouge survivors who lived locally. It might have been appropriate to keep lights on somewhat longer so that we could more properly witness their endurance.

The chance realisation was symptomatic of Bangsokol’s story telling approach. There was often scant guidance for an audience with only a vague awareness of Cambodian history. Images of a lotus might give us a generic impression of Buddhist iconography, and we could infer that photos shown were of people disappeared by the regime.

However, many other sequences were separated from context, such as someone moving buttons around on their palm. Add to this other elements, such as movement of rocks and column segments around the stage, and often I found myself guessing at meaning.

This itself is instructive. We would all know images from Vietnam, say the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Napalm Girl’ photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc taken in 1972. We know of Cambodia’s ‘Killing Fields’ and the estimates of 1.5 to 3 million people murdered. Yet, almost all of the images here were unfamiliar. As a child of ‘The Lucky Country’ – being confronted by my ignorance was unsettling.

What is education for us though is potentially a means of facilitating a collective processing of grief by the Cambodian diaspora. For them, the images, traditional music, and Trent Walker’s Cambodian language libretto will have stronger resonance.

The programme advised that 90% of artists did not survive the time of the Khmer Rouge. A Requiem For Cambodia: Bangsokol stands in defiance of that history. The work’s conclusion embraced colour and the transmission of knowledge to the next generation, and left us with an uplifting thought.

For the disaspora, Bangsokol acknowledges the lives lost, and was greeted with a standing ovation by those who processed earlier. For everyone, the work asserts to the world the resilience of Cambodian memory, culture, and art.

A Requiem For Cambodia: Bangsokol    
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 13 October 2017 – 7.30pm
Season: 13 – 14 October 2017

Image: A Requiem For Cambodia: Bangsokol – photo by Tey Tat Keng

Review: Jason Whyte