NOTE: This documentary was produced by Richard Kuipers, programmer of the Freak Me Out section of the Sydney Film Festival. The writer of this review knows him personally and although this has not influenced his judgement of the film, in the interests of full this closure this potential bias is worth keeping in mind.
The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock’n’Roll is the latest documentary from director Marc Eberle, an intriguing look at a socio-economically disadvantaged Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome poverty, trauma, and a lack of representation through the power of music, thrust into the global sphere by an enchanted Australian musician. Although this story, the clear focus of the film, is interesting, what is most captivating about this documentary is the underlying exploration of a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia in which, up until 1997, most forms of rebellion and pop-culture were suppressed by a tyrannical government.
The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock’n’Roll1 follows Srey Thy, a young ex-sex worker from Cambodia as she rises to moderate international acclaim through her performance of updated versions of traditional Cambodian rock songs with ex-pat husband and musical partner Julien Poulson. Thy is at the forefront of the film, mediating our vision of a modern day Cambodia through her interactions with her socio-economically disadvantaged family and interactions with shop-keepers, pre-Khmer Rouge celebrities, and Poulson himself. The film opens with what has been circulated as the film’s trailer, a brief, mostly-animated montage of little chunks of footage that place The Cambodian Space Project in the context of a Cambodia of past and present, and introduce us to the documentary’s major players. The animation is collage-like in its aesthetic, demonstrating the dream-like, quirky quality of the group and harks back to the special effects of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian cinema; it’s definitely not the sort of thing we are used to seeing in a Western cinematic context. If you, like me, saw the trailer and were a little irked by the pacing and animation style have no fear – after this sequence we are thrown into full documentary mode, with the film taking on a much more thoughtful, restrained quality, calmly tracking events with a very deliberate sense of motion and a vérité-esque presentation. When chunks of animation appear throughout the rest of the film, the off-beat, collagey style actually functions much better than it seems like it should going off only its brief trailer, one that barrages us with bells and whistles; it works well, although I still can’t say that I’m still fully behind it.
What does work wonderfully, however, is the decision to root the story in the fascinating character of Srey Thy, an captivating individual with two sides of her personality at odds: at once she shows a desire for fame and fortune, as well as a desire to uphold the strong, family-centric values that were instilled within the Cambodian people as they banded together in suffering under the Khmer Rouge regime. It is through Srey Thy that our knowledge of Cambodian rock’n’roll and pop-culture is filtered, with her discussions with the unseen director, Eberle, propelling us through a rich history of pre-Khmer Rouge rebellion – something akin to a Cambodian sexual revolution and counter-cultural movement that were clearly suppressed under the regime of Pol Pot. In later moments we see some of the surviving proponents of such a movement as they interact with Srey Thy; their conversations are fascinating, showcasing the stilted rebellious movement that halted somewhere around the midpoint of the eventual successes and cultural shifts enacted by the American counter-culture movement of the ’60s and mid-’70s.
It was extremely interesting, also, to see little snippets of modern culture emerge briefly in the narrative, and in some cases I wish these were interrogated a little further. The whitening of skin as non-Western cultures strive to embody the set of beauty standards set by a Western-led advertising industry, for instance, was a fascinating counter-narrative that became embedded discretely into the frame in some of the film’s later moments as Srey Thy and The Cambodian Space Project start to see international acclaim. The emergent narrative that sees Julien Poulson (who I feel was probably instrumental in getting this film made) cast in a negative light due to his somewhat (unknowingly) racist personality by nature of our alignment with the perspective of Srey Thy is also intriguing – I’m not sure if this was the intention of Eberle but it sure does almost come across that way due to the paternalistic tendencies and occasionally offensively misguided statements of Poulson.
Overall, while the film is definitely not without its issues, its a decent effort and a story that definitely deserves to be told – a passion project from a bunch of guys with a love of obscure music from around the world that more than justifies its own existence. This will play extremely well in the shortened version that has been re-edited for television, although even in an extended cinematic format it doesn’t seem bloated, nor does it overstay its welcome. It was a wise decision on the part of director Marc Eberle to stray away from Poulson, who comes off as embodying a bit of a ridiculous, Pretty Woman-mirroring, white-savior complex,2 as Srey Thy is an interesting enough individual to carry the documentary on her own, emblematic of the wide variety of cultural shifts that Cambodia has undergone over the last 20 years – although his inclusion here is understandable, to direct this story with an Australian voice. Hopefully it sees some release in Australia beyond its festival run – if the topic is of interest, it’s well worth giving a look in the future.