Year Zero36 is a compelling coming of age story about a troupe of young Cambodian circus performers who emerge from backgrounds of poverty to create a piece of theatre that takes them on a journey into their country’s harrowing past. As they discover the courage to disrupt decades of silence, their art leads them to a life-changing encounter in a refugee camp, where they witness the power of their work to forge bonds of solidarity and hope across borders.
Produced by Rogan Productions, Year Zero36 has been created in partnership with Global Arts Corps, and with the close cooperation of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus.
YEAR ZERO 36
After a six-hour drive from the capital of Phnom Penh along dark and dusty roads, you reach Battambang—a former stronghold of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Today the streets are alive with markets, pedestrians, and buzzing scooters. On the outskirts of the city sits a school, Phare Ponleu Selpak (Brightness of the Arts), teeming with children. Founded in 1994 by a group of nine young Cambodians from the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border, the Phare campus is the epicenter of a lively art scene and home to a grade school, visual arts and music programs, and its main attraction—a circus. Under the big top is a place of daring physicality, beauty and escape. It is here that we meet our ensemble of 21 artists, a group of actors and acrobats ranging in age from 14 to 27.
As orphans and victims of abuse or trafficking, many of the performers come from troubled backgrounds. But through Phare, they have flourished, working as professional acrobats and earning enough money to support themselves and their families. When famed American director Michael Lessac arrives in Battambang—after a long career working on sitcoms in Hollywood and theatre in New York—along with his Global Arts Corps made up of actors from post-conflict zones around the world, they discover a team of talented young artists eager to collaborate with them. Together they embark on a journey to create a play that moves backwards through time, melding circus and theatre in an exploration of life under the brutal Khmer Rouge. Their goal is to travel with the production and perform for audiences emerging from recent conflict, visiting places like South Africa, Colombia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. But first they need to craft a play worthy of a world tour.
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Thirty-six years after the retreat of the Khmer Rouge and the conclusion of a genocide that killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population, a new generation of Cambodians has inherited the country. Though struggling to emerge from the dominance of its closest neighbors Vietnam and Thailand, crushing levels of foreign debt, and rampant poverty, today’s Cambodia is nonetheless modern and connected, with 60% of its population under the age of thirty. On the streets, K-Pop culture influences fashion and, like their Western counterparts, young Cambodians live much of their lives on social networks. To imagine the youth of contemporary Cambodia gripped in a bloody civil war and trained to ‘smash’ all who stand in their way is not just difficult but nearly impossible. But the genocide that was engineered to bring the country back to zero left a gaping wound and has had a lasting effect on the lives of these performers.
Year Zero36 poses the question: What is left when the dust settles? The film explores what it means to be a second-generation victim and how to survive in the wake of such incomprehensible killing.
The work of Michael Lessac and his Global Arts Corps does not, however, focus solely on the experience of the victim, but investigates both sides of conflict, demanding that our protagonists be at once perpetrator and victim. While there is often an impulse In the aftermath of horrific violence to dehumanize those responsible or view them as savages, barbarians, or monsters—unknowable to those of us on the outside—this reaction does little to help us understand what leads to the genocides we have seen too frequently in the last century or what it means for young people to inherit a society that has been decimated by atrocity. Year Zero36 is film about the shadows lurking in us all, the things we carry from our history and cannot escape, how they shape us, and how we must reckon with our pasts in order to survive them. It is a story about exploring the grey area that one traverses in becoming a killer. And it is a story about using art to talk to each other, to expose denial, and to disrupt a silence between generations.
Sometimes I see these characters as doing something magical, working in a realm where they channel their ancestors, call upon the spirits of the past and raise the dead to let them speak. This ensemble of circus performers takes it a step further and engages with another population who have just escaped violent conflict in their own country. And it is in the resulting mirror that we recognize we are all capable of being a perpetrator of such atrocities and we are all at risk of being their victim.