Filmmaker Ly Bun Yim lives in Ta Khmao, a suburb of Cambodia's crowded and energetic capital, Phnom Penh. When College of Idaho alumna Jessica Austin ’09 first visited him in June of 2013, Ly gave her an electrifying tour of his self-designed studio, which doubled as his home. He bought the property upon returning to Cambodia, decades after he fled from the genocidal class-warfare waged by the Khmer Rouge soldiers in the late 1970s.
As Ly reminisced about the production of one of his greatest films, Puthisen Neang Kongrey, Austin thought of the great losses he and his film collection have endured since that time.
Between 1960 and 1975, an estimated four-hundred films were made by Cambodian filmmakers. During the destructive Khmer Rouge regime, which murdered roughly 25 percent of the Cambodian population, history was lost—only about 30 of those films survive today.
But through a Fulbright-Hayes research grant, Austin will spend 10 months collecting interviews and photographs in order to preserve and recover oral histories of Cambodia’s Golden Age of cinema.
“Cambodia's Golden Era has now become a renewed area of interest for many people around the world,” Austin said. “Especially for a generation of Cambodian youth who have no direct experience with the genocide that their mothers, fathers, and many aunts and uncles lived through.”
Austin, who received her master’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii, will research the history of class war and genocide, expressions of modernity in the 20th Century, and formations of popular culture.
“It’s easy to see how current trends in Karaoke videos, popular music videos, and contemporary popular films reveal a lot about society in Cambodia today,” Austin said. “Similarly, films and popular music from the 1950s through to 1975 reveal much about that time period, if we are approaching with the right questions—critical ones.”
When first introduced to Asian Studies, Austin became frustrated with written histories of Southeast Asia, feeling authors were held back by their assumptions and points of view. She also noticed there wasn’t much to read about Cambodia, other than the genocide of the Khmer Rouge period.
So she decided to investigate the Asian country more, writing her master’s thesis on gender and nation in Cambodian cinema. As she gets set to return to Cambodia this fall, Austin is excited to explore and unearth a piece of cultural history through the lens of those whom created it.
“I've yet to have an opportunity to spend uninterrupted time there, and I'm really looking forward to building deeper connections with community leaders and elders who have lots of stories to tell,” Austin said. “The thing I'm looking forward to the most is definitely community interaction.”
And it’s the ability to feel for her fellow human beings that has made Austin stand out in her academic pursuits. That quality caught the attention of Dr. Maimuna Islam, when Austin took her freshman writing course at the College.
“It was immediately clear to me that I had an unusual student in my class," said Islam, who was also Austin’s advisor. "Jessica was not only exceptionally bright, she was also someone with tremendous capacity for empathy, love, and kindness. I learned so much from her responses and analyses in my classes, and I continue to learn from her. The Fulbright grant is an enormous accomplishment for Jessica, and her project embodies Jessica's intellectual-emotive self."
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