March 29, 2010

The Tenth Dancer

Last night I saw a tremendous film about Apsara, the traditional Khmer dancers. Until the time of Pol Pot, these dancers were an essential element of Khmer society as a connection between the gods and man. The film I saw was called “The Tenth Dancer” because nine out of ten Apsara dancers were killed during the Pol Pot Regime. Made in the early 1990's, the film documents one of these “tenth” dancers who survived the genocide.

In the time of King Sihanouk, many young girls trained to be Apsara, including the film's central character. The stunning and ornate costumes, jewelry and make-up were an important part of royal ceremony, and the dancers lived in the palace. During Pol Pot, these women's close connection to the king made them targets for the Khmer Rouge.

Reading about Pol Pot is one thing, visiting S-21 and the killing fields another, but harder still is trying to understand Pol Pot in context. Listening to the stories of survivors is infinitely more painful because the numbers don't matter--one million, two million—it's arbitrary if you watched your sister starve to death, then your father and mother. The brutal interviews about Pol Pot's regime haunted the slow precision and beauty of the Apsara dance revival shown in the film.

I want to know more.