Via Art, Franco-German Lessons for Cambodia and Vietnam

For nearly a century, France and Germany were sworn enemies, their hatred swelling during the 20th century’s two biggest wars.

But today the countries are the E.U.’s backbone and have become allies, joining forces to handle the crisis that Europe now faces. From nemeses, they have turned into partners.

French theater director Clyde Chabot poses in her interactive exhibit at the Institut Francais gallery in Phnom Penh. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)
French theater director Clyde Chabot poses in her interactive exhibit at the Institut Francais gallery in Phnom Penh. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

If the French and Germans can come together, Cambodians might one day also view the Vietnamese in a new light. This is what the French and German embassies are inviting the public to consider during a series of exhibitions and conferences, “Culture and Education as Reconciliation Tools,” which will be held through Saturday in Phnom Penh.

“Cambodia and Vietnam also have maintained a history that has been complex, and they now are called upon to work together in the context of Asean,” said Alain Fortin, first secretary of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh.

“Long-term partnerships, like those of France and Germany, end up lasting only because they are built by the people” rather than based on politics, he said on Wednesday. This is why the new French-German event series focuses on how education and the arts can help rewrite relations between Cambodia and Vietnam, he added.

One of the exhibitions opening tonight at the German Cambodian cultural center Meta House is entitled “In/Visible Borderline.” It was jointly conceived by Cambodian filmmaker Sao Sopheak and Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami.

Ms. Sopheak said she initially hesitated when asked to take part in the series. “I did not want to be involved in politics,” she said.

But her interest had been piqued, so she decided to call Mr. Mami, a Vietnamese artist friend based in Hanoi, to discuss the idea. When he agreed to collaborate, she decided to forge ahead, and the two 35-year-old artists traveled together to the Cambodia-Vietnam border to gather material for a joint project.

Border markers sculpted out of palm sugar by Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami. (Sao Sopheak)
Border markers sculpted out of palm sugar by Vietnamese artist Tuan Mami. (Sao Sopheak)

“Along the border, they cannot live without each other,” Ms. Sopheak said. “I interviewed motodop drivers on both sides: They pass over customers to each other.”

Ms. Sopheap will present a 5-minute film at the exhibition plus a video installation, while Mr. Mami will display border markers he fashioned out of palm sugar.

“Palm trees have been growing for centuries in both our countries,” he said.

“I thought that this sort of interdisciplinary presentation could bring clearer and more natural narratives, and with more sensibility, about what is real life from people on both sides,” the Vietnamese artist added.

The two artists will also display a map of the border sculpted with soil they brought back from their trip. The exhibition opens at 6:30 p.m. and runs through June 12.

At the Institut Francais, Clyde Chabot, a French theater director, is staging an exhibition entitled “Museum (Theater)” in which visitors are invited to have their photographs taken in front of a large screen featuring an image of their choice. They can do this while holding up a sign featuring a word in Khmer, English or French.

Image selection ranges from photos of Angkor and Cambodia in the 1890s to Phnom Penh in April 1975 and today. There are also photos from countries in which Ms. Chabot has previously staged this exhibition, including India, South Korea and Germany.

The inspiration for Ms. Chabot’s project is the play “Hamletmachine” by German playwright Heiner Muller, which deals with the communist dream and its failure. Visitors to the exhibition can listen to excerpts of the work in several languages while it plays on speakers in Khmer.

The photos taken will be projected on Saturday at 5 p.m., ending the event. “From these individual portraits will emerge an overall portrait of today’s Cambodia. At least, this is the hope,” Ms. Chabot said.

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