Dancing Through Death


The survival of Ancient Southeast Asian culture is explored in Dancing Through Death: the Monkey, Magic & Madness of Cambodia. Produced and directed by Janet Gardner, it is the story of Thavro Phim a Cambodian dancer, who came of age under the Pol Pot regime and lost his father, brother and grandfather during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. Thavro's dedication to Cambodian Classical dance and to his role as the magical white monkey kept him whole during the ordeal. Current controversy in Cambodia over whether to try Khmer Rouge leaders heightens interest in "Dancing Through Death."

A resident of the United States since 1993, Thavro returned to Cambodia in 1998 for a bittersweet reunion with his family and teachers. The film follows him on that journey.

The centuries-old traditional Cambodian dances tell mystical stories of good and evil, with bejeweled princes, princesses, giants and monkeys as the principal figures. Cambodian dancers had a sacred role in the ancient land. The documentary looks at this cultural history and the ancient empire of Angkor when the Khmer ruled most of Southeast Asia. It takes its audience to 1975-1979 and conveys the preciousness of the dancers who survived the country's maelstrom. It tells of the transmission of a culture from generation to generation, mourning for what was lost and celebrating the dance that has survived in the midst of death, displacement, and turmoil.

Click on images above to see slideshow.

Mr. Phim was three years old when Pol Pot came to power and enforced a radical agrarian regime. He and his wife, anthropologist Toni Shapiro Phim tell the story of Cambodia's "killing fields" and the classical dancers against the backdrop of their work together, their romance and eventual marriage. Dr. Shapiro Phim studied dance in the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border after the genocidal years during which 90 percent of the dancers had been executed or died of starvation or disease. She shares some of her archival footage in the documentary, considered especially precious because many Cambodian records were destroyed between 1975 and 1979.


The secondary theme of the documentary is the dancers' mission to preserve their legacy by teaching Khmer dance to children of Cambodian refugees. Personifying the younger generation is Samnang Hor, a 13-year-old monkey dancer with the Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, MA, where Thavro was a guest performer. Other young dancers struggle to learn the ancient art in San Jose, CA, where Thavro still teaches. The documentary follows Thavro to New Haven, CT, where he joins the Cambodian Genocide Project to document the story of the Khmer Rouge and to search for his own relatives.

Screenings
• Broadcast 1999-2000 on PBS stations
• Satellite Television Asian Region (STARTV)
• Screened at Asia Society
• American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting
• Asian Studies Association Annual Meeting
• The Newseum, New York
• Boston's Asian American Film Festival, 1999

Awards
• Winner of the CINE Golden Eagle Award, 1999


 
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