Life and Death at Preah Vihear
by David A. Feingold
color, 51 min, 2015
in Khmer, Thai, and English
with English subtitles
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Life and Death at Preah Vihear explores why two Buddhist countries are fighting in the 21st Century over a Hindu temple from the 11th Century because of a bad French map from the early 20th Century.
Filmed over a five year period in both Thailand and Cambodia, the film uses the conflict over the ancient temple of Preah Vihear (Khmer) / Khao Phra Viharn (Thai) to illuminate current political and cultural tensions between the two countries. In addition, it shows the ways in which the colonial encounter with the West impacted the concept of borders and boundaries of the Southeast Asian state. Finally, it shows the stark political divisions that have split Thailand into "Red Shirts" and "Yellow Shirts", and exposes how the dispute has influenced — and been influenced by — Thai internal politics.
The documentary shows the magnificence and mystical symbolism of the temple itself. Using rare archival footage, it places the present dispute in its historical context in both Cambodia and Thailand. It contains interviews with policy makers, scholars and ordinary people on both sides of the border; some of whom see the conflict as senseless, while others are willing to fight to the death. In Cambodia, it shows 'spirit warriors' of an ancient general being mobilized through trance to defend the country. In Thailand, both Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts are filmed, as are the street demonstrations and fierce fighting that has periodically erupted.
The film includes the most recent Thai military coup, and concludes by examining the impact of this seizure of power on issues along the border.
“David Feingold's Life and Death at Preah Vihear is a valuable work of art, culture, and history. The evenhanded and yet straightforward approach to a contentious border dispute is quite rare. It delves sympathetically but carefully into the rich cultural and political histories of both Cambodia and Thailand, and their differential experiences with French colonialist frontier-making. This is another very professional Feingold film, and a fine teaching resource.” — Ben Kiernan, Chair, Council on Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, author of How Pol Pot Came to Power, and The Pol Pot Regime.
“This compelling documentary conveys how maps, senses of place and time, sovereignty, and religion are drawn into on-going struggles about the contested location of Preah Vihear Temple - Cambodia or Thailand. Using historical and contemporary sources, experts and ordinary citizens, the film offers multiple perspectives and insights into how borders and sentiments about them are implicated in domestic and international politics in surprising, and devastating ways, that continue into the present. Highly relevant to area studies, the films would add to courses on memory, politics, place, and religion. The film raises important questions for anthropology and cultural studies.” — Bambi B. Schieffelin, Collegiate Professor, Professor, Anthropology, New York University