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‘Pol Pot Dancing’: Cambodia’s Dictator Tried To Wipe Out Classical Dance, But His Foster Mom Saved It – Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival

In one of the most compelling films to hold its world premiere at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, archive footage shows an apparently amiable man dressed in black sitting for an interview with a Yugoslav journalist. The year is approximately 1977.

“Comrade, you are the first person to hear my biography,” the man says with a warm laugh.

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The man is Pol Pot, the Cambodian dictator then in the middle of his four-year genocidal reign of terror atop his country, a period in which a quarter of the Cambodia’s population perished.

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, in the Cambodian jungle with an ABC news team during an interview. Filed 01/17/1980
Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle in 1980.

Director Enrique Sánchez Lansch tracked down the incredibly rare interview in the archives of Serbian TV. Pol Pot almost never spoke to journalists, and rarely, if ever, told the truth about his background. In the 1977 conversation, he paints a humble picture of his childhood – saying he grew up the son of a “peasant farmer.” That was a self-serving fiction with only a semblance of reality.

The true story of Pol Pot’s background – his formative years at Cambodia’s royal court and how his foster mother, a dancer at that court, raised him – emerges in Sánchez Lansch’s film Pol Pot Dancing.

“He would sort of advertise his upbringing and he would not give away that he was in any way connected to the dance or in any way connected to the Royal Palace,” Sánchez Lansch tells Deadline. “His version was a very modest one anybody could have had in any province, this kind of upbringing.”

'Pol Pot Dancing'
‘Pol Pot Dancing’

There is greater significance to the film than simply fact-checking a dictator’s fabulist narrative. While he was in power from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot’s regime brutally suppressed intellectuals and artists – including dancers. His policies nearly annihilated the country’s long traditions of Khmer classical dance, which serve as far more than cultural ornamentation but are vital to the Cambodia’s sense of self.

“If there are two basic pillars of Cambodian culture that everybody relates to, it’s the dance and it’s Angkor [Wat], the ruins of the temples of Angkor,” he says. “Even the people who don’t go to see shows regularly or never practice the dance, they really cherish this kind of dance and really look up to it and really look up to the persons who devote their time to performing this kind of dance. So, to destroy this dance was really destroying part of the identity of the country.”

Chea Samy, 73, Who Was Royal Dancer In The Reign Of Monivong In 1934, And Young Girls In Gilded Costume.
Chea Samy teaches dance in Phnom Penh in 1993.

As the film reveals, Chea Samy (1919-1994) is remembered as one of the greatest artists of Cambodia’s ritualistic dance tradition. Her skill made her a favorite in the court of King Sisowath Monivong, who reigned from 1927 until his death in 1941. After the king’s death, Samy married a man who had two younger siblings, one of them a boy named Saloth Sâr. Remarkbly, decades later that very boy would become a Communist revolutionary and assume the name Pol Pot.

Samy was not only a sister-in-law to Saloth Sâr but effectively his foster mother. The young Sâr left his village to live with his older brother and his wife in the complex of the Royal Palace.

“[Samy] particularly liked him, so he was practically the son she always wanted to have,” Sánchez Lansch notes. “And, so, she put all her love into him, but also took care that he had every possibility that otherwise only children from a high bourgeois family would have in terms of education.”

Saloth Sâr, aka Pol Pot
Saloth Sâr, aka Pol Pot

The future Pol Pot attended university in Paris, where he was radicalized. As he assumed the mantle of a revolutionary leader, he adopted various names and shielded his identity. Even when he eventually seized power in Cambodia, regular people had no idea what their leader looked like. For that reason, Samy could not know the boy she helped raise had turned into the architect of a genocide. She only discovered her connection to Pol Pot after randomly catching sight of a photo of him on a wall.

“Some Cambodians [in that era] might’ve heard him occasionally on the radio, but people were rarely exposed to his face,” Sánchez Lansch says. “It’s totally believable that three years into the Khmer Rouge regime, many people would not know what he looked like.”

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime wiped out virtually all those, like Samy, who embodied and passed on the country’s dance tradition. The former dancer was dispatched, like millions of others, to the countryside to labor in support of the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian dystopia – her graceful hands, so necessary to the expressive forms of traditional dance in Cambodia – withered and stiffened from day after day, month after month, of toil.

Sophiline Cheam Shapiro trains a young dancer.
Sophiline Cheam Shapiro trains a young dancer.

Samy somehow survived and devoted the rest of her life to teaching a new generation of young people how to perform the exacting dances she had mastered as a child. One of her students, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, appears in the film, choreographing a dance that tells the story of Samy and her foster son, Saloth Sâr/Pol Pot. Rehearsals and scenes from the dance form the crux of Pol Pot Dancing – in a sense, by honoring that artform, the film can be called a rebuke to the dictator who almost eradicated a form of artistic expression that belongs to the world’s cultural patrimony.

“This was never written down,” Sánchez Lansch explains of the Khmer classical dance. “There was never like a bible, how you do this dance training. It was really given from one teacher to the next teacher. So, if you break that oral tradition by killing everybody involved, then it’s gone.”

Pol Pot Dancing is premiering in International Competition at the 26th Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, contending in that category with 11 other world, international and European premieres. Sánchez Lansch made the trip to Thessaloniki from Berlin, where he is based.

Director Enrique Sánchez Lansch at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival in Greece.
Director Enrique Sánchez Lansch at the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival in Greece.

“It’s my very first time here,” he says. “It’s a great experience… I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it has an excellent reputation and as far as I can see, it certainly lives up to it… They have great audiences and as I could see in the Q&As, they really ask good questions.”

From Thessaloniki, Pot Pot Dancing will screen at festivals in Warsaw and Munich, the director tells Deadline. The film will premiere in theaters in Germany in the fall. Sánchez Lansch also hopes to bring the film to other parts of the world that have become home to the Cambodian diaspora, including Southern California.

“That’s the place where the biggest Cambodian community in the U.S. is. Then there’s another big Cambodian community in France,” he says, adding that the film team is working on a strategy to bring the film also to Cambodia, where many of the dancers seen in the film live and practice their art.

The director says he hopes “to see the reactions of an ordinary Cambodian audience because still nowadays, this connection of Pol Pot to the dance and his upbringing close to the Royal Palace, that’s something that not many people are aware of.”

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