For Canadian filmmaker Mark Bochsler, Surviving Bokator and its focus on the revitalization of the Cambodian martial art of Bokator was an unpredictable discovery of a proud country grappling with history, culture, and honour.
Funded primarily by Bochsler and producer Sandra Leuba (Bochsler’s wife), the documentary was filmed and completed over eight years (while working full-time jobs and raising two children). It is scheduled to make its Canadian premiere at the Hamilton Film Festival this Sunday and the buzz has increased following American stops in Austin and Philadelphia.
“It was really good to see the film resonate with general audiences, but also with, and more importantly with Cambodians, because they are the ones who lived through it,” Bochsler explained to MMA Crossfire. “And especially the ones which are somewhat ‘removed,’ those who are now in America and are raising their families here, and those parents, the ‘genocide generation’ who’ve emigrated, former refugees. They experienced the genocide, but their children who’ve been raised as American have no connection to it, so it’s been interesting to see both generations finding something in the film specific to themselves.”
Cambodia is primarily remembered in the West for Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and the the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s that killed as many as 2.5 million people. But the country has a rich history and culture that goes beyond the killing fields, something the film tackles along with themes of female empowerment and generational divide.
“The young generation seems to be drawn to the cultural elements in the film, which gives them a better sense of their parent’s culture, and many are coming of age now,” Bochsler added. “They’re getting a better sense of what is it like to be Cambodian. Is it just the dancing or the pictures of Angkor Wat that they see. But now they have something else to latch on to. For the parents, it’s also about national pride, but also understanding.”
The martial art of Bokator was almost lost to the Khmer Rouge, but preserved through the diligent work of the grandmasters, represented by Grand Master San Kim Sean in the film. To avoid being killed, Sean fled to the United States and returned later to spearhead the restoration of Bokator through the youth.
In particular, Tharoth “Litte Frog” Sam, the country’s first female Bokator instructor and now a MMA fighter and actress, emerges in the film as one of the bright hopes for Cambodia.
“My goals of the film have evolved with the evolution of the film,” Bochsler said. “We never set out to make the film that we ended up making, and I guess it’s never like that in documentaries. Most times, you let the film make itself, you’re just kind of the guiding hand, the film will have its own direction. But for me, my biggest goal is to get as many eyeballs on the film. And that’s not out of vanity, it’s just I come to realize that I’m a small part of a bigger machine. And a part of it is this collective energy of Cambodians to change hearts and minds about what their country’s about.”
Surviving Bokator is scheduled to premiere nationally at the Hamilton Film Festival Sunday, Nov. 11 at the Zoetic Theatre at 1:00 p.m ET.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out our upcoming conversation with “Little Frog” Tharoth Sam soon!