There are two films I regret missing out on at the 25th Austin Film Festival, and the North American premiere of Surviving Bokator is one of them. A powerful documentary about triumph, loss, and survival, I was able to catch the film after its premiere. There were moments that made me tear up, and other moments that made my heart ache. Surviving Bokator follows an elderly genocide survivor on his journey to revive his country’s traditional martial art of Bokator. The film is shot over the course of five years and not only follows him but his students.
As a citizen of the United States, most of my knowledge of the Cambodian genocide came from textbooks. It wasn’t until I watched First They Killed My Father that I realized the full magnitude of what Cambodian citizens went through. It was heartbreaking and sickening that the Communist Khmer Rouge regime could slaughter so many innocent people. Surviving Bokator takes it a step further by not only focusing on real survivors as they struggle to live in a rebuilding nation but how the genocide nearly wiped out numerous arts and traditions. The ancient martial art of Bokator is one of those arts.
Watching this film made it easy to understand why director Mark Bochsler dedicated almost a decade of his life to studying and filming the life of Grandmaster Sean Kim SAN and his students. The opening of the film is nothing but the Grandmaster next to a grassy river showing what he had to eat to survive: frogs, beetles, and anything else he could catch. The Grandmaster is a wealth of information, and listening to him talk about surviving the genocide would make anyone tear up. During the genocide, the Khmer Rouge regime made it a mission to hunt down and kill any practitioner of Bokator. As he ages, he realizes he doesn’t have much time left to pass on the art to the next generation.
I appreciate the director allowing the younger generation to have a voice in this film. After all, they are the future of the martial art, and without them, all the Grandmaster’s hard work would be for nothing. There is a huge amount of love and respect between Master and student in this film. They realize the importance of what they are doing and how it can help strengthen their country. Watching them travel for the first time and talk about their dreams and inspirations is aspiring. When there is conflict or something goes wrong at a demonstration, your heart aches because you know how much the martial art means to them.
Surviving Bokator is one of the must-watch documentaries of 2018, proving that even amidst a devastating loss, a country can persevere and rise once again. Bochsler gracefully captures the students as they come of age, and Grandmaster Sean Kim SAN entrusts them with the responsibility of reviving Cambodia’s martial art of Bokator.
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