On Friday 30th November we launched Phnom Penh Noir at the FCCC in Phnom Penh before a crowd of about 200 people. I acted as emcee for the evening.
We started off with two songs by KROM from their Songs from the Noir album: My Way and the Ying. Christopher Minko who wrote the lyrics is the man behind KROM and his lyrics are part of Phnom Penh Noir. Christopher Minko has been involved in a number of charities supporting Cambodians with disabilities. He has fought more than his share of noir type battles to see that disabled volleyball and basketball players were able to compete successfully in international competitions.
Following the KROM performance, Kosal Khiev took the stage. If you want a genuinely noir story, Kosal delivers it in spades. As a toddler he and his family left a Thai refugee camp for America. For a lot of reasons, the land of promise and dreams didn’t work out for him. From age 16, he spent the next 16 years of his life in an American prison. When he was released, the Americans deported him to Cambodia, a place he had no real connection. He was an American in culture but a foreigner by birth. No passport—he was in prison and never had chance to get one—meant he could be deported. He lived in the street for a few months until he got his first gig in Phnom Penh. He’d studied writing and poetry in prison and had turned this training into the kind of performance art that stays with you, haunting your dreams.
Kosal and his mother had some large issues. She felt he’d wasted his time on music and poetry, and was after him to get a ‘real’ job like other men his age, other members of the tight-knit Khmer community in the States. Mothers talk and brag about their kinds. Especially when their sons receive a regular paycheck. They all had sons who worked in a shop, a plumber, electrician, etc but rap/poet performers? She could not grasp the concept. Her son was homeless in Phnom Penh. In fact he represented Cambodia at the Cultural Olympaid in 2012 in London, had appeared on TEDx, the BBC, and won a major prize in Germany—those were abstract things. They weren’t a paycheck. That night before 200 people, Kosal’s mother sat in chair as her son sang one of those power storms of loss and regret. She cried. Members of the audience cried. After he finished they embraced. It was as if for the first time she had accepted her son for what he was and what he wanted to do in life. She understood his power and that he had the truth he could tell. She was finally proud of her son. It was one of the most moving moments I can recall. I hate crying in public. Men shouldn’t do that. But I did.
Next I introduced Roland Joffé, director of the iconic film The Killing Fields. His story Hearts and Minds is the lead story in Phnom Penh Noir. It was his first short story, and everyone who has read it has been touched by it. Roland had been also very moved by the reconciliation of Kosal and his mother. He spoke of how he met Haing Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, who played a pivotal role of the Khmer journalist Dith Pran in the movie. Haing Ngor, who could speak English, was on the set fixing this, helping out with the Khmers on the set, everywhere at the same time. Roland had asked him about being in the movie. Haing Ngor said he wouldn’t. They talked again, about the Khmer Rouge, the killings, the desire to make a film that would portray those who had suffered during this time. Haing Ngor finally agreed after understanding that he would be able to take that message to the world. Not for himself (he wasn’t a selfish man) but on behalf of his countrymen who had lived and died during the Pol Pot years. It was another highly emotional moment as Roland Joffé hoped that wherever Haing Ngor was, he wasn’t forgotten, as we all honoured his memory and his contribution to The Killing Fields.
Roland also said that he looked forward to telling more stories but more importantly to see Cambodian telling their own stories. He told The Cambodia Daily a day before the launch:
“The next crop of Cambodian stories are not necessarily [mine], or any other Westerners, to tell.”
The last speaker of the night was John Burdett, whose story Love and Death at Angkor appears in Phnom Penh Noir. John articulated the concept of noir, placing it in the historical context of French film, as well as classical literature like Shakespeare’s. He was the right person to that as he’s a fluent French speaker and studied literature in university. He captured the essence of what noir means and articulated context of where Phnom Penh Noir fit into this noir tradition. Vulture Peak is John’s latest novel. If you want to give a great holiday present to someone in your family or friend, I can’t think of a better crime novel.
It was a noir evening with many a non-noir twist and turns down the emotional road that Cambodia delivers. Also attending that evening were other authors who contributed to Phnom Penh Noir: Bob Bergin, Neil Wilford, Suong Mak, and Jack Narciso. Bob came in from America for the event, and Jack from Italy. We missed James Grady, Praba Yoon, Bopha Phorn, and Richard Rubenstein. They were missed. A video of the evening is being edited and will soon be on YouTube.
On Saturday, Roland Joffé was the featured speaker at the Rotary Club of Cambodia and I had the privilege to introduce him before a luncheon crowd. The event was fund raising for Cambodian with disabilities. Peter Gray and Lity Yap brought together a good group to hear Roland speak about how Christopher Minko was one of his heroes (mine too) for his efforts to help those no one else was helping.
On Sunday we had two workshops at Meta House where Bob Bergin, Jack Narciso, Neil Wilford, Christopher Minko and Suong Mak, and myself talked about writing and our stories in Phnom Penh Noir.
Noir weekend in Phnom Penh touched a lot of lives. Christopher Minko was the steady hand on the scene who worked tirelessly for months to ensure these events would come about. Arranging sponsors and partners like Johnny Walker and Heineken beer. Also David Armstrong, Alan Parkhouse, and Poppy McPherson at the Phnom Penh Post who let their readership know about the authors and the events.