'Angkor's Children': Film Review

Angkor's Children - H 2015
Courtesy of SIFF
A genuinely optimistic doc set against a backdrop of horror

Young women embrace the arts to move past national trauma.

Perhaps nowhere does the tired line "the children are the future" ring truer than in Cambodia, where genocide and its aftermath have left a nation in which half the population is under 21. In Angkor's Children, Lauren Shaw acknowledges the horrors of the Khmer Rouge while finding hope in young women (and their adult teachers) who see dedication to the arts as a path out of despair. Inspiring without leaving the viewer feeling manipulated, it should play well on the fest circuit and marks a strong directing debut for Shaw.

Shaw introduces two individuals and a group. She focuses on the latter — women who sing about human rights issues because people would rather hear songs than speeches — mainly as representatives of a broader movement of activist youths, but spends plenty of time looking at the personal lives and hopes of the two individuals, Phunam and Sreypov. (Both are identified only by their first names.) Phunam is a gifted circus artist (watch her do archery with her legs while in a handstand!); Sreypov is mastering smot, a hauntingly beautiful style of folk song meant for funerals.

Both girls come from poverty, and their families depend on them for income; Phunam's background is especially harrowing, as her father beat her and her mother until he died. But both see paths to success in performing, earning enough to keep their families alive while pursuing academic studies as well.

As we meet the adults who support them — like Det Khoun, the co-founder of an art school — we hear plenty about how hard the Khmer Rouge worked to kill off teachers, intellectuals and anyone else who might present children with alternatives to their brand of socialism. Angkor's Children argues, fairly persuasively, that they failed.

Production company: Great Pond Productions

Director: Lauren Shaw

Producers: Mimi Edmunds, Paul Feinberg, Lauren Shaw

Executive producers: Cynthia Mohr, Paul Feinberg

Director of photography: Chris Kelly

Editors: Bernice Schneider, Stephanie Munroe

Music: Josh Peck

No rating, 65 minutes