Soul revival: a local documentary on a soulful issue

A locally made documentary shedding light on Cambodia’s artistic recovery in a post-Pol Pot era is earning praise on the world stage, writes Lara Picone

When celebrated documentary maker Aviva Ziegler’s new film Wandering Souls screened for the first time this year, it was the culmination of a two-year labour of love for the Double Bay resident. 
Together with Paddington-based producer Margaret Murphy, Ziegler poured countless hours into documenting the staging of one of Cambodia’s most significant musical productions, Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, a work created by childhood survivors of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime.

“People think it’s going to be really sad and worthy, when it’s actually quite uplifting,” says Ziegler, whose previous credits include the seminal documentary series on teenage pregnancy, Plumpton High Babies. “It’s beautiful and the sound is incredible.”

Soloists rehearsing (1).jpg

Ziegler, herself the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors, has a deeply personal interest in the stories of genocide. Making Wandering Souls proved a personal struggle, with lack of funding for the film testing her resolve, but she says she felt honour-bound to finish it.

“After two years of struggle, I couldn’t see the wood for the trees,” Ziegler says. “But we’d made a commitment to those whose lives we were respecting. There was no way I could step back. You just have to keep going.

“There was lots of goodwill toward this subject matter from the general public. People were interested in a requiem — a very traditional way of honouring the dead — and it just touched people’s hearts.”

Aviva Ziegler

Aviva Ziegler

A Requiem for Cambodia is itself a multidisciplinary work that combines music, film, sound and voice to tell the story of the two million people brutally murdered during the bloody four-year period of Khmer Rouge rule. The work was created by Oscar-nominated film director Rithy Panh and highly regarded composer Dr HIM Sophy. It has been staged around the world, including Melbourne, and will be performed in Phnom Penh in November.

Wandering Souls explores the stories of those involved in creating the production, and is a revealing look at how Cambodians are determinedly using the arts to help restore their cultural legacy.

For all the struggle, Ziegler has found an audience for her beloved film. It will screen at the Margaret Mead Documentary Film Festival in New York on October 19 after premiering earlier this year at the Cambodian International Film Festival, where it earned praise for Zeigler and Murphy for the sensitive exploration of an important cultural story.

“We felt it was a story worth telling and an opportunity to make a contribution to a better world,” says Ziegler.

Wandering Souls screens on SBS on October 28 at 2.30pm or can be downloaded on SBS On Demand.