On Sunday, December 8th, Phnom Penh kicked off the 4th Annual Cambodian International Film Festival (CIFF) with a wide selection of dramas and documentaries being screened across the city. With a mix of Khmer and international films, the movies featured are from seasoned directors such as Rithy Panh, as well as up and coming directors such as Neang Kavich, who directed the film “Where I Go”.
“Where I Go” is a documentary about 18 year old San Pattica, a Cambodian-Cameroonian who seeks to learn more about his father, a Cameroonian UNTAC soldier who was in Cambodia around 1992-1993 to help with Cambodia’s first elections. The film exposes racism in Cambodia as Pattica is teased for his dark complexion and called names like “monkey” by his peers. In one emotional scene, he is crying with his Khmer mother telling her “They despise me. They don’t see me as Cambodian” referring to his neighbors.
Cambodia is a society that values white skin over dark complexions. Skin whitening creams are widely sold in pharmacies and cosmetic counters and some people go to great lengths to wear long sleeve shirts and pants in hot and humid weather to protect themselves from getting dark. While many people in Western countries go to great lengths to get a tan, in this country, and many other Asian countries, being dark equates to being poor, such as the poor, dark, farmer who toils in the hot sun.
But the film was more than about exposing the dark truths of racism in Cambodian society. The film also uncovers the struggles of poverty. Pattica’s mother is a pregnant drug addict who lives with her boyfriend who is a laborer by day, trash picker by night. They work on a housing construction site making a combined daily income of $8.75 for this particular work. After a night of picking trash with her husband, his pregnant mother is seen inhaling fumes to get high.
Abandoned by his mother, Pattica’s grandmother took him in to live with her. When his grandmother couldn’t support him any longer, she sent him to live in an orphanage. He prefers to live in an orphanage to get some semblance of an education and encourages his half sister, who’s Khmer-Ghanian, to live there too. His mother and grandmother are at odds. Pattica’s mother accuses her mother of being a gambler who wanted to exploit her and her sisters to feed her gambling habit, while her mother sees her daughter as a hopeless drug addict who recently sold her own child to feed her bad habits.
It seems as though searching for the father he has never known is the only thing that gives him hope and escape in this world of discrimination and poverty. The hope is that his father, a soldier who came to Cambodia with an honorable mission, is someone who is more respectable than the adults that are currently in his life.
It is a thought provoking film by this new director and Pattica is a strong young man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but seemingly with a positive attitude despite his hard life. The film exposes the harsh realities of poverty in Cambodia and raises some tough questions about racism in our society.
A sign of a good film is that you are left with some questions. By the end, I was left wondering, had he been Khmer-Caucasian, would he be treated differently by his peers, neighbors and Khmer society in general...What do you think?
*To learn more about the CIFF, and other movies playing this week, please visit: www.cambodia-iff.com. Free admission to all films until Thursday, Dec 12th.