Having made its premier at Cambodia International Film Festival, Surviving Bokator follows one man’s fight to preserve Cambodia’s traditional martial art of bokator. Marissa Carruthers speaks to Canadian director Mark Bochsler and star of the documentary, Grandmaster San Kimsean.

What is Surviving Bokator about?

MB: It is a heartfelt story about reclaiming cultural identity and building bridges between generations. The story is told through elder genocide survivor San Kimsean, who is struggling to resurrect the ancient Cambodian martial art of bokator and preserve it by passing on the tradition to the country’s youth. The film gets to the very core of the generational fracture happening in Cambodian communities around the world today, between genocide survivors determined to revive and maintain traditional ways and Cambodia’s youth looking to forge anew and take the country in a new direction while keeping traditions alive.

Why did you choose this topic?

MB: It happened by accident. We [Bochsler and his wife and producer Sandra Leuba] were on holiday in Southeast Asia and were looking for a small arthouse project about culture and cultural revival. Sandra always liked Cambodia, so we did some research and Grandmaster Kimsean’s Facebook page came up. The idea of martial arts as a dying culture struck us. We were amazed that those spearheading the revival are average people; citizens who do this in their own time and with their own money. Despite having very little, they have this unwavering commitment. When we sat with him in Phnom Penh in April 2010, we immediately saw the Grandmaster’s energy and realised the scope of his commitment. For me, it was a no brainer.

Why is it important bokator survives?

SKS: Bokator belongs to Cambodia. Our great, great, great grandfathers and great kings from thousands of years ago practised it, you can see it on the walls of Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire used the martial art in their fighting. I spent my life liking martial arts, sports and art, and was very concerned and sad when I saw bokator was dying. I worried very much that it would get lost; thousands of years of history gone. When I look at other countries, such as Thailand and Japan, their martial arts are alive, people are training and fighting across the world. This is not the case with bokator. Why doesn’t Cambodia have a proud national martial art? I knew I had to do something.

When did you start learning bokator?

SKS: I started learning from my uncle and other elders in my village at the age of 13 and travelled across Cambodia to learn from bokator masters. From the age of 18, I knew I had to do something to keep bokator alive – I’m now 73. During the Khmer Rouge, I had to hide my skills as many bokator masters were killed. I went to the US for more than 20 years after the Khmer Rouge and even there my heart and dreams were with bokator, which I taught there. In 1992, I came back to Cambodia to promote, research and revive the art.

What do you want the film to achieve?

MB: We did a screen test in Long Beach, US, and saw the impact of that experience, it was incredible. From the feedback, we realised it was more than just a film about the revival of lost culture; it had such great social value. Now we see it’s a discussion piece for people, it puts Cambodia on the map in a new way. It’s about hopes and dreams and being human.

SKS: I hope it will inspire more people to try bokator and come and enjoy it with us. We welcome everyone from Cambodia and across the world to train and help bokator survive.

What were some of the challenges?

MB: We didn’t realise how long it would take. As a filmmaker, you’re looking at trajectories and the story arch. Grandmaster was waiting to hear back from UNESCO about whether they would be accepted to perform bokator in South Korea for the first time, so the beginning of the film was there. From then on it was a matter of filling in the gaps, but the story really developed as things unravelled. Things started to evolve, and we had to stick with the story. It took eight years to complete, which is a long time.

Will the film help the fight for bokator’s survival?

SKS: I was so happy when Mark came to me because no one has done this before. For my entire life, I have dreamed that bokator will be brought back to life and my dream is close to coming true. I have been working hard with the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and we are waiting to hear back if our submission for bokator to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list is accepted. That is my ultimate dream. If we get that then my life is OK. If I die, then I can die happy. This film is helping to show our culture to the world.

How else do you promote bokator?

SKS: I know more than 10,000 bokator techniques and am currently drawing them to be published in books so my knowledge doesn’t die with me. We have released the White Krama [first grade] book, with 100 techniques, and I have already drawn another 3,000 to be published. I have to do all 100,000 otherwise what is the point of me devoting my life to learning them if I can’t share them and pass them on to others?

For more information on Surviving Bokator, visit bokatorfilm.com