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Stranger Than Fiction

By: Erna Eiríksdóttir Posted: June-25-2008 in
Erna Eiríksdóttir

Peng Phan is a survivor. Somehow, throughout a life riddled with uncertainty and doubt, this extraordinary women has managed to find her dream out of the darkness and claim it for herself.

Born in 1953 in the remote province of Kandal, Peng Phan developed a larger-than-life passion for drama and the arts. After graduating from high school she sought higher education to help further her theatrical studies.

The only school capable of teaching art at university level in Cambodia in 1971 was the Army Art School of Phnom Penh. Its primary function was to motivate soldiers through the media of dance, drama and singing. The reasoning was simple; the "arts made the soldiers happy, which made them better soldiers".

It was here among the school's modest staff of nine professors and one hundred students that Peng quenched her thirst for knowledge. Tapping into her potential, Peng completed the five-year course in just one year.

Her talent opened up many new doors for Phan, who seized the opportunity to work with the Army Television Channel. Here she took on the role of both DJ and anchorwoman for two years in the mid-1970s. "Those were the very good years," recalls Phan. "I loved reading the news, and it was my second favourite job, acting being number one."

However, dark times were to come. During the reign of Pol Pot, Phan was sent to the Cham Pos Ek Prison in her home province of Kandal, and she never thought she would survive the ordeal.

She was forced into hard labour in the rice fields, toiling away for eighteen hours a day along with hundreds of others. One night, just before the fall of Pol Pot, half a dozen Khmer Rouge soldiers were sent to the prison with the sole purpose of killing all the labourers.

In an unexpected turn of events, the head guard showed a hint of compassion and freed his best workers, including Phan. She was told to pack her few possessions and flee to the riverside to avoid the Vietnamese army, which was quickly closing in on the province. While Phan and the other workers waited by the river, the head guard killed more than two hundred and fifty people. Only fifty were spared.

Soon life began to turn in Phan's favour. She found a job teaching drama at the Army Art School she had attended years earlier. It was here that she fell in love with Savang, a colleague who also taught at the school. They were married in 1980.

Phan was content with her new life in teaching but always missed her days in television and longed to return. Many years later, she was offered a job at Channel Nine. Despite her family's disapproval, it was a dream position for Phan and she jumped at the chance. Her family warned her that it was her love of art that had resulted in her sentence at Cham Pos Ek Prison, but her resovle would not be swayed.

Phan's acting career began with a role in the hit film Rice People (Neak sre). The acclaimed Khmer director, Rithy Panh, first met Phan at the art school and, remembering her sublime acting talent granted her the lead role of a farmer's wife who loses her mind under the pressure of caring for seven children following the death of her husband.

The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes International Film Festival in the summer of 1994. Despite losing to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Rice People made history the next year as the first Cambodian-produced movie to be submitted for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. To this day, Phan remains extremely honoured to have been a part of the film.

In spite of the excitement surrounding the film, Phan fell terribly ill from the sadness of leaving her country for the first time. Her husband, Savang, protested her departure, but once again Phan ignored the objections, choosing to follow her dream. "He was very angry that I still wanted to go," she says, smiling at the memory. Rithy Panh supplied Phan with medication, and the trip was one that would change Phan's life.

In Cannes, Phan met Norodom Sihamoni, the current king of Cambodia, who was Cambodia's Ambassador to UNESCO at the time and a diehard fan of drama. Phan travelled to the festival with the future king, Rithy Panh and Chhim Naline, who played Sokha, the oldest daughter in Rice People. She left the premiere to a hail of congratulations and interviews; "It was the best night of my life; I had never felt so special before," she says.

Rithy Panh and Phan collaborated on two more films. One Evening After the War (Un soir après la guerre) was based on a romance between a kick boxer and a bar girl, in which Phan portrayed the bar girl's mother, while The Burnt Theatre (Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé) was a semi-autobiographical film about the life of a bohemian theatre group in Phnom Penh. Phan's career had blossomed.

In total, Phan has acted in seven films, worked in costume design for a further two films and starred in a television series. She cannot choose a favourite. "I loved every minute of it."

Despite Phan's strong relationship with Rithy Panh, she much preferred to work with foreign directors. Japanese, French and Malaysian directors and producers "care more about the workers than the Cambodian directors", Phan says. "We got better food when foreigners were on the set!"

Before Phan leaves the film industry she has one last dream to fulfil; she wants to produce a biographical movie to share her story with the world. Her desire for the project is to inspire people to help each other and make the world a better place to live in. She hopes that with the guidance of Rithy Phan the film will become a reality. All that remains is for her to raise the money.

Phan may be less active in the world of film today, but her time is well spent helping non-governmental organisations build centres of support for rape victims and HIV sufferers and free education centres for youth and adults.

She works both in Phnom Penh and in provincial Cambodia and has given donations to help build fifty centres in the last eight years. Phan and Savan established the National Action Culture Association (NACA) in 2001, where they care for over thirty children, all of whom are orphans or have escaped from destitution. The children live in a small townhouse in Phnom Penh with herself, Savang and two volunteers.

When Phan was asked why she chose to devote her life to this cause she answered simply: "I want to teach Khmer traditional dance to preserve Cambodian culture, I want to help the poor people of my country and I want everyone to have the opportunity of a good future."

The films of Peng Phan:
Rice People, 1994
Femme de Passions, 1994
One Night After the War, 1996
Still Living is Exquisite, 1998
One Step on a Mine, It's All Over (Jirai wo fundara sayonara, 1999)
Newsman, 2000
The Burnt Theatre, 2005

Costume department:
L'empire du Tigre, 2005
Les Hommes de Coeur, tv series, 2005
Un Barrage contre le Pachifique, 2008


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