Rewriting History

Rolea ba’ier district, Kompong Chhnang province – After nearly 80 years, the span of her entire life, Buth Phorn still carries a deep-seated resentment of the French colonialists who imprisoned her father for what she, and many others, believe was an act of heroism.

When she was 8 months old, Buth Phorn’s father, Neay Buth, was hauled to prison, accused of killing a French man in an uprising against the French protectorate in Kraing Leav village.

Buth Phorn said she has little sympathy for her father’s victim.

“How much pity do I have?” she asked. “I first met my father on the day of my wedding when I was 15 years old.”

On April 18, 1925, during the Khmer New Year, Buth Phorn’s father was among a mob of Kraing Leav villagers who, in a show of rebellion against the French, beat to death colonial administrator Felix Bardez, his interpreter and a militiaman.

Bardez, known for his cruelty and arrogance, had come to the village to collect taxes, and during the court trials of villagers later that year, the fact emerged that Cambodian farmers were paying the highest taxes in all of French Indochina.

According to author David Chandler in his book, “A History of Cambodia,” the killings especially shocked the French community because it was the first act of violence against a French administrator in Cambodia.

After the slayings, then King Sisowath Youtevong agreed to rename Kraing Leav village to Phoum Derachhan, or “Beast” village, shunning its residents for their behavior. He also ordered villagers to “conduct expiatory services for Bardez on the anniversary of his murder for the next 10 years,” Chandler wrote.

Today, the stupa for Bardez, built by the French outside the village’s pagoda, remains a lasting reminder of the incident.

Now, with a new film about the historical Bardez affair in the works, Buth Phorn and fellow villagers have joined the cast, hoping to defend the village’s reputation.

“Villagers and I feel angry and sorrowful that our village was changed to be called Beast village,'” she said.

“I volunteered to perform in this movie because I am the one who is a victim, and I want young Cambodians who were born after 1924 to know and see how the French behaved badly and violently to Cambodia,” she said.

The film “Phoum Derachhan,” produced by Independent Video Production, has dredged up decades-old anti-French sentiment and a wave of nationalist pride, particularly from the village’s elderly.

Some recall that the French colonialists, who occupied Cambodia from the mid-19th century till 1953, forced villagers to pay massive taxes on their rice harvests and their use of oxcarts. Even when harvests were poor, taxes remained high. And if villagers couldn’t pay up, some were forced to flee their homes and abandon their relatives under threat of imprisonment or violence.

Others recall that the French colonialists used their resources to construct resorts and other places of leisure, rather than schools, hospitals and irrigation systems.

Felix Bardez’s legacy here is particularly brutal. Residents in Kompong Chhnang province speak of him as a villain, who ordered villagers to be handcuffed and beaten when they failed to pay their taxes.

The injustices done by the French to this day are still unsettled, said Chun Saley, a 68-year-old farmer in Kraing Leav.

“Currently, the French and the French government should compensate for putting colonialists in Cambodia, especially the money they collected through rice-taxes and oxcart taxes. Those large amounts of money were extorted by French colonialists from Cambodians,” he said.

His neighbor, Koeuth Samean, 38, added that the killing of Bardez was justified.

“Where there are pressures, there are oppositions. If the French man didn’t take rice-taxes…he would not have been killed by the strong mob of villagers,” she said.

The film’s producers, however, are wary their work could be interpreted as anti-French.

The $30,000 production is meant to give an accurate portrayal of the Bardez Affair and the state of Cambodia under French rule, said director Sak Sithorn.

The film, scheduled for release in July, will be shown in high schools in Phnom Penh, he said.

But in retelling the Bardez Affair, the film gives no illusions of neutrality as it portrays the dissident villagers as heroes struggling against their oppressors.

“For freedom, people dared to stand up and kill people who made them hurt,” Sak Sithorn said. “I want to show the next generation how Cambodia suffered badly when it was under French colonial rule.”

“Phoum Derachhan” includes a cast of a few Frenchmen, some 100 volunteer villagers and celebrated Cambodian kickboxer Ei Phouthang.

Appearing in a film for the first time, Ei Phouthang plays the villager Neay Nov, one of the 15 people arrested after Bardez’s killing.

Ei Phouthang said acting was no easy feat. “Performing for movies is much more difficult than fighting because I have to change my attitudes and facial expressions,” he said.

Despite the contentious subject of the film, Ei Phouthang said his reasons for taking the role were not political.

“My performance is to improve historical movies,” he said. “We need peace and we never thought to fight against the French through this movie.”

His fellow actor and kickboxer Cheas Srouch, 27, agreed.

“We attempt to live in a peaceful and happy country. Thus, it would be fruitless to be anti-French,” he said.

The role of Bardez is played by Ossorio Herve, 33, a French national who has been living in Cambodia for almost 10 years. As a longtime resident in this country and husband to a Cambodian woman, playing Bardez was strange, he admitted.

But, he said, “It’s great to perform as a very bad guy when you are a very nice guy.” Actress Sak Sokarak Bopha, 25, who plays one of the villager’s wives, defended the film’s nationalistic slant.

“Other countries also film historical movies and they don’t mean to be against any one nationality,” she said, adding that Hollywood films often deal with the war between the US and Vietnam.

“It would be absolutely mistaken if movie-goers thought that our performance is an anti-French act,” she said.

Asked this week whether the French Embassy wanted to make a statement on the film or the possibility of it raising anti-French sentiment, spokeswoman Claude Abily said the embassy had “no particular comment.” “Phoum Derachhan” will be shown in Phnom Penh theaters.

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