One of Cambodia’s greatest actresses and now still performing in public, Dy Saveth is a legend in her homeland. She was one of the fortunate few to escape the wrath of the Khmer Rouge in the ‘70s. Many of her fellow actors were not so fortunate. I focused on Dy Saveth in some blogs posts in November 2006, so I was pleased to see this interview with her in the July-September issue of the Heritage Watch TouchStone magazine.
Interview with Dy Saveth
From the ‘golden age’ till today, Dy Saveth has been a leading performer and patron of Cambodia’s film industry and performing arts.
Dy Saveth, one of Cambodia’s legendary actresses, talks to TouchStone about life before Pol Pot, working with the former King Norodom Sihanouk and today’s new generation of artists.
She emerged as one of the most successful actresses during Cambodia’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 1960s, which saw the growth of locally produced films and the opening of cinemas across the country. When the Khmer Rouge took control, from 1975 to 1979, most of the film industry’s leading figures were either killed or fled the country. During Vietnam’s 10-year control, cinemas were reopened though no local films were shown nor produced. Gradually, Phnom Penh has seen in the last few years the reopening of cinemas and a rebirth if locally produced films.
What inspired you to become an actress?
What was it like working with former King Norodom Sihanouk?
I made three films with the former King, which all took place during the 1960s. He chose to work with me but I am not sure why. He must have seen me in my other films and liked maybe my acting, or character or beauty. Whatever it was, it was such a pleasure to work with him. He was simple and nice and was a great joke teller. He was always making people on the set laugh and feel relaxed. He was never rude and showed a lot of respect for all the actors. One time when we went to Kampot to shoot he came down to where all the actors were lodging and made sure we were all comfortable and were being well looked after. When I worked with him I never thought of him as a King but as a producer and a lover of the arts. As well as films he loved to sing. For me, as a simple girl from Phnom Penh, it was an honour and I was always made to feel comfortable whenever I worked with him on set.
How did you survive the Khmer Rouge period?
By coincidence. I had travelled to Thailand to take some rest a month before the Khmer Rouge took over. As I went to the airport to return to Cambodia, the people told me that no planes were flying to Phnom Penh. I wanted to return to my country but they told me that everyone was trying to leave Cambodia. I was terribly saddened and had such an urge to go back but it was impossible. I then went to France and stayed there for 18 years until my return in 1993. Many of my colleagues were killed during this terrible time. I was lucky but many of my family members were not.
Why and how was your return to the country?
I believe that my life is in Cambodia even though before Pol Pot I had many opportunities to live abroad and I had lived in France for such a long time. Cambodia is in my soul, it is my country and when I returned I knew I had to do something for the country. On my arrival it was hard, so many people disfigured by the war and traumatised. I decided to put performing to the side and instead help my fellow people. I tried to set up an orphanage but unfortunately it was still impossible as times were difficult and I did not have enough funding. Since, I have opened a ‘club’ which provides free training in performing arts such as acting, singing, presentation and some traditional dancing, which I learnt from my aunts when I was young.
How do you approach teaching the younger generation of Cambodian artists?
I believe in combining European and Khmer techniques. It has to be a mix of both. There is the refinement of the Khmer presentation but living in Europe also taught me the importance of allowing younger ones to express themselves and to teach them to take initiative. This is one part of Khmer culture that needs to be changed. Being shy and fearful of elders is not something we should encourage. We should encourage adults and children to learn from each other, hold hands and play together so that there is a mutual understanding between the older and new generation.
How do you view the younger generation of Cambodian performing artists?
The new generation of performers is mixed. I believe that performing and art is part of the Cambodian blood. We simply cannot get enough of it, it is the soul of our culture. However, it has to come from feelings from the heart. I believe some of today’s performers understand this, others prefer to believe in stardom. This scares me a lot and I worry. Worry that our culture of dancing, singing and performing will disappear as this younger generation forgets our traditional art-forms. I have worked with some, such a Preap Sovath, who is very professional. But a lot of them believe that once they are famous they will remain so forever. That is not true.