Conditions for Performance in Cambodia: Interview with Chea Sopheap

Sopheap_CHEA copyCHEA Sopheap was born in 1984, Cambodia. He earned his Master of Arts in History at Khmerak University in 2012. CHEA is a historian, who from a young age was curious about stories of life in Cambodia before he was born. That curiosity is what led him to Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, initially as an Archivist and today as Deputy Director.

Sopheap has worked with Bophana for a decade and as his career has developed, his work has been increasingly linked to arts and culture; he has produced cultural events, run film festivals, installed exhibitions and used the resources of Bophana to form links and networks between people in the sector.


Annie: Could you please tell me a bit more about your background and how did you come to get involved in the arts? 

Sopheap: From 2004 I majored in the history of Cambodia at the Royal University of Phnom Penh first. I was born after the Khmer Rouge. I did not know anything about the Khmer Rouge, but civil war was going on when I was growing up. I wanted to understand the story of the Khmer Rouge, because when I was young my parents used to talk a little about the Khmer Rouge. When we were eating dinner or lunch, if we left rice, they would say, “Under the Khmer Rouge, you were not offered food to eat, so you have to take care of this.” And when you work as a kid, you were lazy sometimes, they would say “If you don’t work under the Khmer Rouge, you were not offered any food to eat, or you would be killed.”

So as kids ask questions, I would ask my parents, and they told me a little bit, and when they get to the sad story, they stopped. I just wanted to know more. That’s what brought me to study history. After my graduation, I worked at small organisations, supervising young reporters to write the news. In 2007, I came to the Bophana Centre to view the archives and I understood it is a very important resource with many video archives. In 2008, when I came to the Bophana Centre, I expanded my passions and love to art and culture. As since I work as the archivist, I watched so many many films. I had the opportunity as the archivist. I have a lot of footage, from the early 1900s.

Annie: A lot of early 1900s material managed to survive through the different governments and the Khmer Rouge? That is amazing, and important. Could you please tell me more about how they were collected at the Bophana?

Sopheap: Most of the materials that we collect are from different countries. We collected from France because many documents were created by the French; films, photography, and they were also preserved in France. That’s where we got the collection. And during the Khmer Rouge and after, many things had been misplaced, but not all. Not all. Because the Bophana Centre took quick actions to bring together the archive pieces, and the centre was hidden then to collect all the materials put together.


Bophana Centre


Annie: Does the Bophana Centre collect materials from people within Cambodia or also from outside of Cambodia? Please also tell me more about the work you have been doing.

Sopheap: Both inside and outside. At the beginning we did collect outside materials from the outside. After that people knocked on our door and brought their archives in, to be preserved and presented to the public. The Bophana is very unique in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia, because we collect archival materials not only to, but also to be accessed. Education is very important, and not many places like this exist in our area and Southeast Asia as well. So the archives are wonderful.

I became interested in the project called Cambodia’s Lost Songs, that were very famous in the 1920s, but after the years of war and genocide, the masters were killed, so not many masters survived. But we brought the songs from the 1920s to publish in a book, and then took them to the masters saying I don’t know how to perform this song again, but just remember a little bit the lyrics. Fortunately, in that book, the music score was produced for each song. (This was an exercise done by a foreign musician in the 1920s.)

So I went to meet the masters around the country. Then we brought five musical masters together to adjust the music score because in that book the music is not really Khmer, because Cambodian music is never written in a book. The musical scores are not written because from one generation to another they learnt by listening. They cannot read music, they learn from listening and then played the same. So the score is not accurate, just close, because when the musicians played, they were asked to stop so the score could be written, but when he asked them to continue, they did not know how to continue unless they started from the beginning, because they learnt from listening. So we met all the important masters that came together, and they discussed and agreed on how how you might perform the songs now.

Later I curated exhibitions and film festivals. Last year, for example, during the World Day for audiovisual heritage, we presented a series of archival films specific to Cambodia, and the films were made in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and the 1970s. But in this time frame, we also talked about the identity of the ‘new’ China, and we invited the experts to give lectures on this. Our vision is to have our Cambodian people, our audience, to understand the craft, to see and acknowledge their identity, in order to move forward. Without understanding our past, our history, we are not able to move quickly to the future. So we want them to understand this.

And people come, meet and share the stories. There was one photographer who took pictures. He told his story from when he was in Cambodia, so we understood the situation form his own experience. He left the country two weeks before the Khmer Rouge took power, so he brought all the materials with him. He had given a copy to his friend, and then when he was living in Japan, he saw one of his photos on the brochures on Cambodia, and he said, oh this is my photo. So he went to look for it, and he met the person whom he took in 1970, present in the work. And the other people came, one of his friends from the US came for his exhibition, and he shared his story that he was here two days before the fall of Phnom Penh, and he talked about the situation, how he could not come to Phnom Penh by bus anymore, only by helicopter, because the road was cut by the Khmer Rouge. This was a beautiful story to share.

Then another friend who was the photographer correspondent in Laos, shared the story at the same time in Laos. it was in the revolution, that happened at the same time as the Khmer Rouge. It happened in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam. The same thing, because the Communists went into China at that time. So he shared how the Laos situation was like. It’s almost like the Khmer Rouge. So these events we do are a platform, that brings people together to share and learn. This is a space we want to create. We want to build opportunities for people who want to understand better.


Annie: The discussions that have emerged from the archives and the events, provide not only insight into the history of Cambodia, but also beyond, of the region and its intersecting narratives. What other activities do you run at the Bophana?

Sopheap: We do film-making residencies that we call ‘creative programmes’ where we train filmmakers in the basic grammar and foundation of filmmaking, and we run internships for someone to learn about working with archives. We also had a one year programme where in the initial programme, we invited expert teachers to teach the philosophy and the history of documentary, and we also taught journalism, research methodology, the art of interview and building rapport and trust. Professional and well-known teachers come to teach this class and I think they are very lucky to have teachers such as Rithy Panh, experts from Switzerland to spend weeks with them watching, telling them the story and watching all their rough footage, analyse, tell them how to put the footage to tell the story, practice and consult together.

Also, we build audiences. We make a lot of promotions, we knock on their doors, and invite them to see things, to see the free movies. We go to the university, the high schools in Phnom Penh. Sometimes we bring the film and projector to screen in their class, and we make presentations, we tell the story, tell them to make them interested. In Phnom Penh, we also do screenings outside the wall. We also go to the countryside, where we call it itinerant screening, and now ‘mobile cinema’. So now many Cambodians, young people, between ages 19 – 35, are coming a lot to Bophana to watch the materials. Expatriates also come to use, and many researchers from universities, from around the world.

Annie: In terms of contemporary performance, do you think the people and the artists believe that it’s important to document their performance, and how does Bophana work with them?

Sopheap: Many artists now are aware of the importance of the documentation of their work. The other important thing is now the preservation and presentation. They create their work, and they document, but after it dies, because you don’t preserve, present it, or show it to the public. But some other organisations leave their work at Bophana Centre, like Cambodia Living Arts and Khmer Art Ensemble, because we provide access to the public.

Also, some visual artists do their work and they document it. Some keep with them, some leave a copy here for reference, because it’s important for young people to come. It’s important to have a centre so people know where to go.

Annie: I guess this is one challenge that we find sometimes working with archives – trying to negotiate when artists say their materials is not documentation but artwork, and that limits what they feel comfortable placing in an archive. It’s a conflict of interest between the market and keeping something for public reference.

Sopheap: Sometimes we ask, and if the artist agrees, we can keep it unavailable for two years or three years. But we cannot keep it for the rest of life without giving access to the audience, because space is limited, and we cannot keep something that is not available to the people.


Annie: What are the other challenges of working with archives at the Bophana Centre?

Sopheap: We have many challenges working in the field of archives. It is expensive to preserve the archive, and it costs in space and storage. At Bophana Centre, we decide to preserve the material in the form of digital materials, as we don’t have a lot of space. If you want to preserve the Cambodian archive in the physical format, this building is not large enough, and then we don’t have enough physical support as well. Because many materials have been destroyed, we get the copies only in digital form from our partners in France, in America, in Japan, Singapore, and around the world. They give us digital copies in this digital era. But we still must have storage and servers. The server is running 24 hours, and everyday we are expanding bigger and bigger, we need to enlarge its capacities, and it costs.

Annie: Is the archive is dependent on grants and donations?

Sopheap: Totally. Thanks to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and the government of Cambodia, we can have this building to run our activities. Everything is free here, except only if you want a drink. Because we are an NGO, non-profit organisation… because our Cambodian people today are not ready for that, for paying. Even to see archives, to go to other library, to pay. For here, you don’t have to pay. Oh yes, you pay, 25 cents. For a card.

The other challenge is knowledge, the know-how. In Cambodia we don’t have any school to learn this kind of technology on digital archiving, so we learn by practice. When the centre was created, we collaborated with an institution in France that sent experts to teach people here in Cambodia to learn how to work, how to manage. We also had a lot of French volunteers who came to help us and they shared knowledge to Khmer people, Cambodian people, and now we have to learn it ourselves.

Annie: Technology keeps developing, so you have to update things?

Sopheap: Yes, we have to update, and sometimes we collect film in the old formats, like VHS, Beta, and now the people today only know how to play DVDs or digital. And VHS sometimes they have what they call ‘fingers’ on the VHS, and they need to be cleaned, but they don’t know and need to be taught how to clean. Even the tape is very complicated too. For me, if I open it I cannot put it back.

Another challenge is that with the development of the technology, the old player is not produced anymore. You have hundreds and thousands of VHS, how can it be digitised if the player is not made anymore? So we buy some old VHS players, put together and take the spare parts to repair. And you have to take quick action, because VHS cannot last for a long time, so you have to digitise fast. It takes a lot of energy and money. And the other challenge is that the archiving is not a sexy project, so finding funds is not easy, so everyone, I can say from the bottom of my heart, everyone here is working with their love and heart.






This interview is part of a series that began with my curatorial research residency in Cambodia in 2016, which was kindly supported by Java Arts, the Artists International Development Fund and National Arts Council Singapore. The interviews and materials will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asia Performance Collection launched by Something Human in November 2017.


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