Chummeng Soun loves to dance, especially the traditional dances of his native Cambodia.
But those dances are disappearing, along with the Apsara dance masters who once performed them. Soun is documenting their knowledge and movements on film before that link to Cambodian history and culture is lost.
"It's a race against time," says Soun, a junior who is pursuing his bachelor of liberal arts degree in Asian studies and digital media. "The master dancers were deliberately targeted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Only one in 10 survived."
In 2017, Soun returned to Cambodia to film three master dancers who had performed in the royal palace. Two had performed the role of the white monkey in the Cambodian version of the great South Asian epic, the "Ramayana." Those two performers have since died. The third dancer played the giant demon in a Cambodian dance drama, "Prince Samot and Princess Bot Somaly."
"Those works are no longer performed in Cambodia, so that's why it's important to me to capture them and re-create them," Soun says. "And it's a way to repay my master teacher."
His master teacher is Phousita Huy, artistic director of the Angkor Dance Troupe, which performs Cambodian classical and folk dances. Based in Lowell, which has the second-largest ethnic Cambodian population in the United States, the troupe is internationally renowned. Soun joined it in the eighth grade after taking part in an afterschool program offered by the troupe at Butler Middle School.
Soun, who was 9 years old in 2005 when his family emigrated from Cambodia, also performs with Flying Orb, a group of younger Cambodian-American dancers in Lowell who incorporate film into their original works, which are expressive of their experiences navigating two cultures.
"That's where my passion lies - in filmmaking and storytelling about my heritage and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge," he says.
Soun carries that passion to his job working with Cambodian-American teenagers at Teen Block, an afterschool program at the Lowell Community Health Center. He sees himself as a bridge between the older immigrants and younger Cambodian-Americans who identify more strongly with American culture.
"Through all their suffering in Cambodia and then moving here to America, Cambodians experienced a gap, and that gap is getting bigger," he says. "I want the teens to tell stories about their knowledge of their parents and their own experiences as Cambodian-Americans and find that gap, what is missing."
Soun has received support for his documentary film projects through the Tom Leggat Youth Opportunities Fellowship of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and the Indochinese Refugee Fund. He also won a grant from the Independent University Alumni Association of Lowell.
Soun's films will become part of UML's Southeast Asian Digital Archive, a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project headed by English Prof. Sue Kim. Soun also works on the archive through a work-study position at the university's Center for Asian American Studies.