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CHATS PERCHÉS – Case of the Grinning Cat

The Nine Lives of Noradom Sihanouk

by Giles Cayatte
Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2009
DVD, 52 mins., color
Sales, $390
Distributor’s website: http://www.IcarusFilms.com.

Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


Why do the US-based Icarus Films persist in sending Leonardo, a journal of art, science and technology, DVDs that are ostensibly about politics, one might ask? Could it be that the means for addressing the citizens of the USA about serious matters of international politics are limited to one or two cable channels? Or maybe because those who have been educated to know that the rest of the world exists are, on the evidence, sequestered in the halls of learning? Sihanouk was a leader in Cambodia, a country in South East Asia, far away from Europe and the United States. Do I recognise his name and country from an ageing Leonardo Reviews New Materials list because I live in the ‘roughly’ adjacent country of Australia only eight hours flying time away? Or is it perhaps simply memories of disgraceful behaviour by the rich and powerful that led to another of the 20th Centuries episodes of genocide.

Noradom Sihanouk was a regally born Prince to a country with an ancient monarchical tradition. In the 1940s as he was coming of age, he graduated from the French education system and military to become King, though one who broke the pattern of previous monarchs and physically moved among the people in egalitarian style and affable manner. The film progresses through his career as eminence grise of the nation, as he switched loyalties between allies both within and external to the country, according to his feelings and judgement about his personal standing and those of ‘his people’.

The filmmakers by employing the familiar panel of academics and those close to Sihanouk in his years as both ruler and non-ruler, put together a journalist’s uncontroversial account of the nine lives they identify as triangulating his careering path between friends and foes alike. The French, the Vietnamese, the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the Khmer Rouge, the Koreans; all participate with Sihanouk in ‘conspiracies of silence’ to legitimise both his role and their own in winning territory, or influence, or material riches and preferably all three.

The film successfully paints a picture of a peasantry supplicant to the authority of whichever strongman used the technology of the day to subjugate and exploit. Regularly we catch glimpses of the extraordinary 1000-year old structures of Ankor Wat, the backdrop for the photo-opportunities of this history, garnered from film archives by the filmmakers. A world tourist destination today by way of the killing fields, we are left by the clipped reportage to ponder our location in a culture that continues to consume only that which is on offer; but the DVD is added to the stack with more positive intent.

In many of the United States, a recent history of universities is deeply implicated in the history of Cambodia. As a nation the country suffered what later became known as collateral damage, not only from the tonnage of bombs dropped from B52s and other technologies supported by certain university research programs, but also from the perfidious political machinations of the Administration. At the time the universities were divided between political support and political opposition to either the War, or the acceptance of research funds from the ‘military-industrial complex’, or both.

Forty years later opinion on the sources of research funding are no longer debated and yet the technologies of war in 2010 require far more advanced research than back in the 1960s and 70s; there is little doubt advances led by creative people into games design for example, has been of huge benefit to soldiers, policy-makers and pumped-up politicians in continuing to pursue wars for the defence of imperialist-corporate objectives. Well-made films like this one by Giles Cayette, though restricted to DVD dissemination, are necessary to remind the mindful and knowledgeable of politics and the consequences of the corruption of democratic resolve by our various leaders.

Last Updated 7 July, 2010

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