The Khmer Rouge’s atrocious rule left 1.7 million dead in Cambodia. Today, the victims of the 1975-1979 genocide have become music. Composer Him Sophy has teamed up with filmmaker Rithy Panh to create A requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol, a multi-disciplinary production that ‘hopes to serve as an inspiration for post-conflict societies around the world’.
‘We still see confrontation between world leaders, we see people threatening nuclear war –seemingly without thought for the consequences for people all over the world’, says Sophy. ‘I lost my family, I saw people killed. I don’t want this again, for anyone. I wrote Bangsokol to help bring peace to the world, today and in the future.’
As survivors of the genocide, Sophy and Panh hope to breathe new life into Cambodia’s vibrant art sector. And with Bangsokol, they have definitely succeeded in doing so.
A ‘bangsokol’ is a ceremony performed as part of Buddhist funeral rites, in which the white cloth that covers the body of a deceased person is removed in an act that symbolizes rebirth. When I walked into Hamer Hall, a white cloth awaited me in my seat. After putting it on my shoulders (a chilling experience, I must say), the Western chamber orchestra and the traditional Khmer instrumentalists on stage struck a cord and began to play, accompanied by an eerie chorus chanting in Khmer. The musical performance was accompanied by Rithy Panh’s visuals – a mix of archive footage and creative imagery that took us through the Vietnam War, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, its reign of terror, and its ultimate fall.
The mix was brilliant. The visuals gave form and meaning to the emotive chanting. The combination between West and East art forms was sublime and harmonious. The experience truly came through as a new form of expression; arising from the ashes. The presentation ended with a happy and hopeful melody. On the stage, two Cambodian kids on stage learnt the movements of a Cambodian traditional dance while the chorus chanted away: ‘calm your anger’ and ‘let it all go’.
‘Bangsokol is an attempt to honour the Khmer Rouge’s victims by resuscitating the cultural heritage that the regime nearly wiped out, and passing it on to the next generation’, explains Rithy Panh. ‘Bangsokol may be a requiem, but it is less about death than about bringing the past back to life and restoring dignity to the disappeared.’
I left Hammer Hall with mixed feelings. On one side, I felt dazed by the heartbreaking imagery I had witnessed. On the other, I felt hopeful, and most of all, grateful for being able to witness this experience. As I walked to my car, a phrase by Rithy Panh kept playing in my head: ‘To create is to live.’
Bangsokol, a captivating Cambodian creation, is living proof that despite taking everything away from its people, the Khmer Rouge could not kill the key component of any spirit: creativity.
Lourdes Zamanillo is a Melbourne-infatuated journalist. Originally from Mexico, she loves words, travelling, and (above all) feeling surprised.
A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol ran 13–14 October 2017 at Arts Centre Melbourne as part as this year’s Melbourne Festival.
Read our guide to the best of the Melbourne Festival.