Cambodia is like a mother. One day she became sick—hurting—dying—she could no longer take care of her children. She had to let them go. “One day I’ll call you back.” And now—today—right now—She’s calling us.
So begins the trailer for Cambodian street art documentary The Roots Remain (2015). It was 2012 when Montreal-based graffiti artist FONKi returned to his ancestral homeland of Cambodia with a two-man production crew, a shoestring budget and a vision. Three years later, their award-winning feature film tells a poignant story about healing from the past.
FONKi’s family fled the brutal Khmer Rouge reign in 1975. They landed in Paris, then Montreal. FONKi grew up there and found street art as a teenager. Four years ago, he decided to return to Cambodia to paint a mural in memory of relatives killed in the genocide. What began as a simple memorial turned into a vivid illustration of cultural rebirth.
The documentary films Cambodia through the eyes of those who have inherited a fractured country. Graffiti art has its own conflicted past. It grew into itself under the greater hip-hop movement described by co-producer Andrew Marchand-Boddy as “an emotional and creative outlet for poor, angry, and bored inner-city youths. In Cambodia, hip hop is being used in the exact same manner.” To FONKi and his companions, street art was a way to communicate and energize the younger generation. Documentary footage shows FONKi replying to a skeptic, “Even though hip hop came from the United States, that doesn’t mean that we are bringing western culture to Cambodia. Hip hop is a worldwide state of mind.” The documentary merges these revitalization efforts with memories of the past, including footage of FONKi’s family on the trek from Khmer Rouge labour camps back to their abandoned home in Phnom Penh.
In its release tour last year, The Roots Remain received multiple film festival awards and nominations. Beyond this, it has aired to select audiences including the Khmer diaspora in Long Beach, inmates in Quebec prisons, Rwandan communities, and FONKi’s own family in Phnom Penh. The filmmakers themselves are still not immune to the emotions evoked.
“Comprehension of what the team and I did in Cambodia really starts with the reaction of different viewers,” FONKi says. “Every experience and exchange after these screenings is unique in some way. We rediscover our movie with each new audience.”
When FONKi left his art and influence in Phnom Penh, it was a two-way street.
“Since I began painting my family and picking symbols from my Khmer culture to do graffiti – it put me on a whole new artistic path. It also started me on a process of inner peace with my family history and Cambodia’s history in general,” FONKi says.
Today, his art is gaining momentum in murals, photorealism, canvas painting and production. He is releasing a web documentary FONKi World – in both English and French – and has plans for a TV show. He has collaborated with organizations such as Wildlife Alliance and World Vision, and has been commissioned by international art collectors. He is also active in local hip-hop culture, including being a founding member of the art collective MTL ZOO. Kbach-style graffiti remains one of his trademark styles.
In 2015 the documentary crew returned to Phnom Penh for their film’s first showing in its birthplace. The issues of violence and corruption are still relevant today.
“There is significantly less widespread poverty and the standard of living within the larger cities has risen a lot; however, the pervasiveness of the government corruption and human rights abuses is still a massive issue,” says Marchand- Boddy.
The largest population eviction since 1975 recently occurred when a lake was drained for a foreign condo development. The locals who used to live in lakeside homes now live in sewage drains.
“I cried when I returned to see it,” Marchand-Boddy says.
Yet it is part of a full-circle story he tells of how a visit to Cambodia over a decade ago inspired him to his current career.
“It was after my trip that I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker. I needed to tell these kinds of stories, to give the underprivileged of the world a voice.”
Little did he know that his first project out of film school would take him back to document healing efforts on that very soil.
The Roots Remain will play at 7 p.m. on May 19 as part of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. For more information, visit www.explorasian.org.