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A documentary on Arts Revival in Cambodia

YEAR 33: Overcoming Darkness With The Arts In Cambodia

KJ4lyfe cropKathryn Lejeune and Janna Watkins are West Coast natives who are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a documentary they are making. The duo is interested in water conservation and other environmental issues, including composting, recycling, biodiversity, and permaculture. Their documentary, however, is a cultural one, revealing the dark and violent history of Cambodia and how it might be healed through the arts. Life, Love, V caught up with the two ladies recently to learn more.

What led you to want to make a documentary? And, why Cambodia?

One of our goals in life is to encourage people to break out of their routines and see how small the world really is. By opening minds and hearts to other ways of doing things, we think the world will be a better place. Documentaries can be an intimate way to bring someone’s personal story into the living rooms of anyone.

Kathryn has a background in film, while Janna got her degree in Chemistry. We had known each other for a while, but had never really hung out one on one. As soon as we spent some quality time together, a spark was lit and we knew we wanted to work as a team on something big. Our friendship is about mutual respect, cheerleading each other’s goals, similar work ethics, and knowing how to have fun through it all. Kathryn had been itching to make a documentary, Janna has a passion for clean water initiatives, and both wanted to discover something new about the world. Casting the net wide, we settled on Cambodia, which has a very interesting water situation, with the capital boasting some of the best access in the world, while rural areas experience some of the worst.

However, as we got deep into our research, we learned about Cambodia’s genocide under the Khmer Rouge that left 1/3 of the population- and 90% of artists and intellectuals—dead. This floored us. Then we heard rumors of a growing art scene and knew we had to rethink our angle completely.  We reached out to galleries, dance companies, and textile designers, and found our artists. Hearing their stories was enough for us to spend the past 2 years working without pay to bring YEAR 33 to the world.

What’s your elevator pitch for your Kickstarter campaign?

While YEAR 33 is ultimately a story of three artists in Cambodia working to reclaim their country’s stolen heritage, it is also a lot more than that. It’s a universal story of light overcoming dark, and an important reminder that the arts are vital to a society’s well-being. Supporting our Kickstarter campaign is an investment in a sustainable path not just for Cambodia, but for communities everywhere.

Could you elaborate on the 3 featured artists and the respective art forms they practice?

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Nam Narim – Dancer

Born into a tight knit family of artists in Phnom Penh, Nam Narim has spent her entire life surrounded by music, art, and dance. At first unwilling to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, both revered classical dancers, she eventually discovered how Apsara dance connects her to her family and cultural heritage. Her passion for dance truly sparked with contemporary dance, which allows her a pure outpouring of self-expression and is a constant source of strength during hardship. The juxtaposition of classical and contemporary gives her insight into where art has come from and where it can go.  Narim gives everything of herself to her family and it is beautiful to see her dedication. Though things may not always be easy, Narim believes in a bright future for herself and Cambodia.

Mao Soviet – Painter/Installation Artist

Despite a tumultuous childhood Mao So Viet had the good luck to grow up next to Phare Ponleu Selpak, an art school that serves the local community of Battambang. He also had the good sense not to listen to everyone who told him that pursuing a career in the art world was a bad idea. Now Viet runs Make Maek, the only Cambodian owned art gallery in the country. His artwork is shown in galleries and showrooms all over Cambodia. His work focuses on current social issues and personal reflections. A new father, Viet’s ambitions have grown beyond installations and desires to someday have an art community center for children in the neighborhood where he grew up.

Chea Vanny – Fiber Artist

Most of Vanny’s days and nights are spent at the IKTT compound in Siem Reap, where she works every day creating designs for beautiful traditional ikat textiles. Unlike the cheap scarves found in tourist market stalls, Vanny does all work by hand and uses only natural ingredients in the production of silk textiles. Since she was a child, Vanny’s only dream has been to learn. Unfortunately, after completing just a few years of school, she had to drop out to take care of her sick parents. Now living far from her childhood home, Vanny still sends home money from the salary she earns from IKTT.  Her work gives her the freedom of independence in a country where many women on their own are not so lucky. Her complicated and beautiful designs may be fashionable in the US, but it is the desire to keep this ancient tradition alive- and the money she can send back home- that drives her to work as hard as she does.

What specific objectives(s) do you hope to achieve with this documentary? What impacts do you hope it will have?

Our first and main goal is to fan the flame of this art revival in Cambodia through exposure and education. Each artist has goals that we want to support, but the overall themes are to preserve ancient techniques while encouraging innovation through education and increased access to technology. We would love to see the hard work of Cambodia’s artists pay off and have the country once again be world famous for arts and culture, as it was before the genocide. Additionally, we hope the influence of this story will result in increased arts education around the world.

Why is it called Year 33?

Our film takes place 33 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Pol Pot, their leader, sought to destroy all of Cambodia’s culture and history and start over, essentially bringing the country to “year 0”. The title reflects our focus on the present day while also acknowledging the past.

What challenges are you facing right now?

We are currently in the midst of post production and raising funds through Kickstarter to finish YEAR 33. Raising funds and finding the right team in the film world is a harrowing experience, especially when you can’t compromise the integrity of the story. The artists featured in YEAR 33 opened up to us completely, sharing their lives with us unreservedly, and we want to honor their trust in us by creating the best possible film.

How has this project shaped you so far?

Everything about this project has made us stronger. We’ve had to overcome obstacles, get over fear, make hard decisions, learn from mistakes and move forward, humbly acknowledge with gratitude the advantages we hold simply for being born in the US, and gain trust in our own abilities. We’ve also become incredibly close friends, with a trust and understanding that has made us blossom in every aspect of our lives.

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What will you be doing in 5 years?

In 5 years we hope to be on to more documentaries that focus on inspiring stories around the world. We love what we’re doing now and will to continue to work for what we believe in. However, no matter what stories we find, we will never stop caring and supporting the people who have opened their lives to us. Alongside our films, we plan to institute corresponding social action campaigns that will have life beyond the screen. It is our dream to see these blossom and impact a wide audience.

Who should watch this documentary? Do you have a specific audience in mind that you will target?

Anyone who has experienced a dark time in their life and gotten through it will relate to the story of Cambodia and the individual stories of the artists. Beyond that, there are themes of environmentalism and sustainability, sacrifice for family, and, of course, a passion for the arts. In YEAR 33, the arts are the pathway to a better future– economically, but also as personal growth.

Marilyn Cornelius
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Marilyn Cornelius

(r)evolutionary at Alchemus Prime
Marilyn is co-editor of and contributor to Life, Love, V. Her full time work is at Alchemus Prime where she integrates behavioral sciences, design thinking, biomimicry and meditation through a science-based model to develop solutions that address climate change and wellness issues. Marilyn works with a diverse range of professionals in nonprofits, universities, schools, companies, and interdisciplinary conferences to help them build resilient teams, manage change, communicate more effectively, and implement research, programs and projects for sustained positive impact. Learn more about Marilyn.
Marilyn Cornelius
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