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Circus stars backflip onto the screen

A scene from the Phare Ponleu Selpak show which was performed in Phnom Penh last year.
A scene from the Phare Ponleu Selpak show which was performed in Phnom Penh last year. Joel Gershon

Circus stars backflip onto the screen

Work is underway on the first ever feature-length English-language documentary about Battambang’s fine and performing arts school, Phare Ponleu Selpak, and its internationally lauded circus program.

Bangkok-based filmmaker and journalist Joel Gershon said his film would follow the personal journey of young circus performers Sopha Nem and Dina Sok as they left their homeland for Canada to chase their dream of joining the internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil, which is based there.

Phare Ponleu Selpak – which means “the brightness of the arts” in Khmer – was founded in 1994 by eight former refugees who participated in art classes with French artist Véronique Decrop at the Site 2 camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. They benefitted so much from the experience that they pledged to share the gift of art therapy with other children damaged by the civil war. The school, which has about 1,400 students, now has visual and performing arts faculties along with social support and education programs.

Phare’s circus school was created in 1998 to channel the energies of its most volatile, damaged and vulnerable students with participants learning juggling, acrobatics, aerial acts, clowning, balance and dance. Since 2002, troupes from the school have performed internationally, but they also stage two electrifying performances each week at home in an onsite big top in Battambang.

“When I saw my first circus performance at Phare two years ago, I could clearly see the joy and passion in the performers’ faces and I could feel it in the audience’s energy,” Gershon said via email from Thailand.

“Then when I heard the back story of the school, I was floored.… I asked the show’s announcer that night after I saw the performance if there had ever been a full-length documentary on the school, and he told me that there hadn’t ever been any feature length films done in English. I immediately knew that I had to go for it.”

When Gershon began shooting in 2011 he intended to document the circus’s preparations to perform for the first time in New York. But after a year working in that direction, the tour was cancelled and Gershon had to find a new subject.

Watching the fundraising trailer for Gershon’s documentary – which shows Dina and Sopha’s incredible circus skills – they juggle, tumble, perform backbreaking contortions, breakdance, tightrope walk. It almost seems a stroke of luck that the tour was scrapped. Sopha and Dina have serious star power and charisma.

Dina (centre) juggles at the National Circus School of Montreal.
Dina (centre) juggles at the National Circus School of Montreal. Joel Gershon

“In the end, I think focusing on Sopha and Dina will work as a much more emotionally satisfying story as the film can concentrate on these two amazing characters,” said Gershon.

“Looking back on it now, I don’t think the New York angle would have been as powerful, whereas the film now documents a more substantive journey.”

Xavier Gobin – who was one of Sopha and Dina’s mentors at Phare and now works at the offshoot Phare Cambodia Circus in Siem Reap – said it was always obvious the two performers were special.

“Sopha is an excellent contortionist, equilibrist – which is like balancing and hand balancing – and hand-to-hand artist. He was already showing exceptional skills. And Dina is multi-talented; he is a juggler, clown, dancer and an acrobat.”

He said circus skills came naturally to Sopha and Dina, as for many Cambodians.

“Most [Cambodians] have very good skills in acrobatics because they are very used to climbing trees and to using their bodies very young,” Gobin said. “They take risks, and families let them take risks from a very young age and that shows because they are not afraid of anything.

“It’s very obvious with cable tightrope walking: they’re really not afraid of heights and have a really great sense of balance and orientation in space when they jump or do physical circus exercises.”

Gobin said Sopha and Dina were accepted into the National Circus School of Montreal on the basis of a video audition in 2011 when they were 16. He helped them with their passports and visas, accompanied them to Canada and has maintained contact with them via Skype ever since. “They’re doing great training over there,” he said. “Everyone is very impressed by their capacity to adapt, which was not guaranteed from the beginning. Their French is fluent now and their progress is very impressive.

“The rhythm over there! They have to work 10 hours a day and they just bite into it so much and they’re still very highly motivated even after two years.”

Next to the National Circus School of Montreal is the headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, the world’s most famous and prestigious circus and the place where Sopha and Dina hope to perform after they graduate in two years time.

“It’s my dream to be in Cirque du Soleil,” said Dina in Gershon’s trailer.

“When I went to see Cirque du Soleil for the first time. I felt in my heart that I wanted to go on stage and perform with them.

“When the show started … boom. And the hair on my body stood up like this. And my hair was like this.”

In Gershon’s trailer, Cirque du Soleil’s acrobatic talent scout Marceline Goldstein had nothing but praise for the Cambodian duo. “They’re extremely gifted, talented acrobats and they’re really doing what they really need to do to become professional circus artists and I think the passion you can see via video that they both have, they have a desire to perform to the best level that they can so I hope to see them eventually at Cirque.”

Gershon has launched a campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise funds for the documentary. As of press time he had secured $5,253. He said $25,000 was his goal.

“I am committed to making this film, no matter how it has to get done, even on my own – completely independently.

“I’ve also pledged to give 10 per cent of the total funds raised directly to Sopha and Dina if I hit my goal. They have their own financial challenges, as it’s not easy for them to be able to afford the expenses of living in Montreal.”

Gershon said he was uncertain when he will finish the film.

“I don’t want to rush it but I don’t want to take forever either,” he said.

“It will take at least a couple of years, but it will be worth the wait.”

To see the trailer for the documentary and make a donation go to http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cirque-du-cambodia-from-the-rice-field....

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