Film Review: Still I Strive

The beautiful locales of Cambodia provide a rich background for this sensitive documentary about children impressively overcoming personal tragedy through performance.

No one will ever know exactly how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror in Cambodia from 1975 to ’79, with numbers ranging from 1.75 to three million. The slaughter left more than 50 percent of the population orphans and under the age of 25. While nothing can wholly eradicate the scars left upon these children's psyches, an orphanage/school in Phnom Penh, the National Action Culture Association, has brought many of them together for shelter and healing through the rich performing arts of this country's tradition.

Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith's Still I Strive focuses on the great work being done there and particularly on a few of the students who, through training in dance, song, acting and martial arts, are slowly coming to terms with their awful, often abusive pasts and indeed blossoming. While using the expected interview and fly-on-the-wall doc techniques to tell the story, the filmmakers have also audaciously inserted footage of the children enacting a fully staged period drama in the countryside, which fully shows off their considerable talent and is in itself quite compelling.

If there's any kind of star here, it's a delicate yet staunch little boy, Rothana, who suffered severe beatings at the hands of a cruel stepmother and found succor at NACA. He weeps as he recounts his tale—there's a wealth of teary close-ups here—and is completely withdrawn when he is reunited with his family, but then, onstage, he comes fully alive with a magisterial authority that is breathtaking.

Both students and their lovingly committed teachers have one main ambition: to perform before Cambodian royalty, namely Princess Botha Devi, who was herself an acclaimed dancer, as we see from vintage footage of her performing exquisitely. This dream proves difficult but not impossible, and is eventually realized, with the kids positively bursting out of their skins with excitement and pride, ending the film on a true note of triumph.

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