The room is dark with a spotlight and hard bleachers. One young person enters from stage left juggling three red balls. Another performer helps the juggler onto a cylinder. Barefoot, the juggler is now balancing and juggling. Soon they add another cylinder at a 90-degree angle to the first, followed by another cylinder and another. The juggler is now five feet off the ground, still balancing and juggling. Phare Battambang Circus is a human-only circus in Battambang, Cambodia with goals well beyond entertainment that involves its idea of The Brightness of the Arts. It strives to fight poverty in Cambodia through the arts.
The Phare Battambang Circus
The Phare Battambang Circus runs through a Cambodian nonprofit, Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) or The Brightness of the Arts, which provides a “nurturing and creative environment where young people access quality arts training, education and social support.” Sparked in 1986 in a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border, Phare Ponleu Selpak uses a whole child approach through arts, education and social support to break intergenerational patterns of poverty steeped in the long history of state-sponsored violence. While the violence of the Khmer Rouge has retreated, children in Cambodia still struggle with extensive social problems such as poor school retention, drug abuse, poor working conditions, domestic violence, illegal migration and exploitation.
Now a must-do for visiting tourists, high season at the Phare Battambang Circus means at least 150 visitors a night. About 40 percent of nightly circus revenue goes to the youth performers themselves. This income supports families around Battambang and keeps youth out of more destructive industries like human trafficking in Thailand. PPS estimates that over 1,000 lives should positively change every year through its free-of-charge artistic, general education and personalized social support. Its arts education and artistic performances are changing the lives of families living in poverty in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge Regime
Under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, the party’s radical Maoist and Marxist-Leninist agenda governed all aspects of everyday life in Cambodia. In its effort to render the country a classless agricultural utopia, the Khmer Rouge asserted that only the culturally pure could participate in the revolution. As such, the Khmer Rouge “executed hundreds of thousands of intellectuals; city residents; minority people such as the Cham, Vietnamese and Chinese and many of their own soldiers and party members, who were accused of being traitors.” Recent estimates place the death toll between 1.2 and 2.8 million.
The people the Khmer Rouge found to be nonconforming went to prison camps, the most notorious being S-21 where the regime imprisoned over 12,000 people and only 15 survived. Such widespread violence forced millions into refugee camps for years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
At Site II, a refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border, a French artist and humanitarian worker named Véronique Decrop started offering informal drawing classes for the children at the camp orphanage.
How Site II Grew into PHARE
Classes at Site II grew into PHARE, a French association and acronym meaning Patrimoine Humain et Artistique des Réfugiés et de leurs Enfants (Human and Artistic Heritage of the Refugees and their Children). Communications and Marketing Coordinator for Phare Ponleu Selpak Morgane Darrasse said, “The original idea was to develop a form of art therapy for them to escape and overcome the traumas of war.” Over time PHARE grew into Phare Ponleu Selpak or The Brightness of the Arts.
When Site II closed in 1992, Veronique and nine of her students moved to Battambang to create a sustainable school for the most affected children from the surrounding area. By 1995, the school accepted its first students and to this day, four of the original founders are still active in PPS.
Thanks to state-wide violence, all founders of PPS grew up in refugee camps segregated from their own cultural traditions. When it came time to implement music and dance programs at PPS, the founders chose to spotlight Cambodian traditional music. Derasse said, “They felt it their duty to revive the dying Cambodian arts” while fighting poverty in Cambodia.
Phare Ponleu Selpak Supports Its Students
Even though drawing classes with PHARE were the first seed, Phare Ponleu Selpak now has a thriving visual and performing arts curriculum as well as a strong outreach and social work foundation to support students find job placements and networking opportunities through and after their education. In its efforts to create a sustainable arts community, PPS ensures that 100 percent of students who complete their secondary or vocational training with it achieve employment within three months of graduation. This sustainable long-term approach lessens the intergenerational hold of poverty in Cambodia.
One student, Monisovanya RY, studied visual arts and graphic design through PPS. Upon graduation, PPS hired her into the PPS communications team to coordinate product design and production. In her free time, she creates performances in local galleries to cultivate an understanding of the environmental dangers of plastic waste.
Morgane Darrasse for PPS boasts, “We provide our students with communication and life skills, and also a complete set of technical skills, a strong fundamental and cultural knowledge of the arts, and the ability to understand, analyze and respond to a given problem with professionalism and creativity.”
The organization’s graphic and animation graduates work in advertising, marketing and animation production, and all local circus instructors are graduates of the program itself. Its goal is the creation of a sustainable arts community.
PPS’s Child Protection Program
In addition to pursuing arts programming, PPS’s Child Protection Program (CPP) asserts the inherent value of children’s rights. It wants communities to be safe and to provide families with the tools to care for their children. These programs extend into the three communes surrounding Battambang.
In collaboration with 32 NGOs based in Battambang and generous international donors, CPP follows, tracks and supports students and their families through a family needs assessment process and a monthly student sponsorship program. Most PPS participants come from these local communes because of the intense time commitment their programs require. PPS established a scholarship program for its visual arts program recently, which has made it accessible to young people from other parts of Cambodia.
Phare Ponleu Selpak or The Brightness of the Arts saves lives and combats poverty in Cambodia. In 2013, PPS received a royal award of $31,000 from the Netherlands. The Dutch Ambassador said PPS gets at the heart of their award requirements “to promote the use of culture as a means of development.”
– Sarah Boyer
Photo: Phare Ponleu Selpak