New Documentary Unearths the Looting of Cambodia’s Past

One of the saddest moments in the film “Beyond Angkor: The threat to Cambodia’s Treasures” comes as village children prattle artlessly to a Western researcher visiting a remote temple.

They tell her how much a big statue sells for. They tell her how much a little one costs. They give the prices in dollars and baht, de­scribe how the statues are loaded into cars and helicopters, and taken away into foreign countries.

But there are many other mo­ments that are equally hard-hitting.

“It is Khmer people doing this to Khmers,” mourns one old villager. Another laments that the descendants of the very people who built the temples seem incapable of protecting them.

“I pity the temples,” she said.

The 52-minute film, which documents the increasingly systematic looting of Cambodia’s temples, was screened Monday night to a standing-room-only crowd at the French Cultural Center.

Its originator and star, Sor­bonne professor Claude Jacques, was present to answer questions about the project, which was more than a year in the making.

Jacques is one of the world’s fore­­­most authorities on ancient Khmer civilization and has a long history in Cambodia. He arrived in 1961 to work with the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (EFEO), leaving in 1970. Since his return in 1989, he has averaged about four visits to Cam­bodia per year.

Jacques specializes in deciphering the inscriptions sometimes found amid the rubble of ancient Khmer structures. He is one of a handful of people in the world who can do so.

“This is not a scientific film,” he told the audience. “It was born out of a scream of alarm, especially after I saw what had happened at Banteay Chhmar.”

The remote temple was so badly looted that last year, it was listed by the World Monument Watch as one of the planet’s 100 most endangered sites. Thieves stole an entire wall, 117 blocks of which were eventually recovered.

Jacques had visited many ancient temples during his first stay in Cambodia, before the Vietnam-era bombings, before the civil war, before the depredations by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietna­mese.

And while all those took a toll, he said, “the systematic pillaging has become worse in the last two years.”

Throughout the 1990s, temple looters found ready buyers in countries like Thai­land, where some art galleries openly specialized in stolen Khmer art.

Those who stole the carvings often received a relative pittance, while dealers were able to sell fine examples to wealthy collectors—often from Western countries—for huge sums.

Agencies like the UN Educa­tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization have launched  at­tempts to stop the thievery, with help from the world’s media.

One notable success was a British television investigation of stolen Khmer art being sold by the auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christy’s. Publicity also convinced wealthy museums in New York City to return Khmer items.

The new documentary was made to graphically show what is happening, and why it is wrong.

“People who buy a piece of Cambodian art must understand that by this action, it is the memory of the Cambodian people that is disappearing,” Jacques said.

The film, written and directed by Pierre Stine, was shot by the two-man crew of Stine and soundman Olivier Ronval in three segments: November 1999, January and February 2000, and in June.

The crew visited Preah Khan at Kompong Svay, Koh Ker, the Sambor Prei Kuk and Banteay Chhmar, surmounting hideous roads and minefields to do so.

With the help of Ashley Thomp­­son of the Apsara Autho­rity and architect Christophe Pottier of EFEO, Jacques documented as much as possible of the treasures that still remain.

 

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