Still I Strive: Film Review
Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith's documentary puts a spotlight on a Cambodian orphanage that trains its young students in the performing arts.
In the opening minutes of Still I Strive, Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith’s documentary about the National Action Culture Association orphanage in Phnom Penh, we learn that the young charges are given lessons in the performing arts in order to prevent them from “burning out” on their academic studies. It thus becomes easy to imagine that the next 90 minutes will consist of boringly uplifting testimonials to the healing powers of artistic expression.
Fortunately, the film goes off in an unexpected and stylistically audacious direction. Yes, we hear from the instructors, including renowned Cambodian actress Peng Phan, and we’re introduced to several of the young orphans who tell their stories in alternately heartbreaking and optimistic fashion. We also learn that while they’ve performed before many of the country’s high officials, their greatest desire is to play to the royal family, particularly Princess Bopha Devi, a former lead dancer for the Royal Cambodian Ballet.
But we’re also made privy to the fruits of their labors, in the form of a film-within-a-film in which they act out a period drama in the countryside, complete with costumes and makeup, featuring warring armies and fearsome ghosts and enlivened by song and dance. Performed with the utmost conviction by the preternaturally talented young actors, the elaborate scenario contains thematic echoes of the children’s real-life stories and the tortured, violent history of the country itself. It’s a marvelously imaginative conceit that transforms what could have been yet another dryly informative documentary into the realm of art.
Adding greatly to the film’s impact are the gorgeous, Hollywood-level cinematography by Pfleghaar and the stirring Khmer-influenced musical score and original songs by Michael Reola.
Opens May 9 (Pioneer Cinema Institute)
Directors/screenwriters: Adam Pfleghaar, A. Todd Smith
Producer: Jim Lee
Director of photography: Adam Pfleghaar
Editor: A. Todd Smith
Production designer: Amy Leah Nelson Smith
Not rated, 92 minutes