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About the production
  • Year of production
    1993
  • Broadcast and production partners
    BBC / ABC

Synopsis

“ Some of my friends and relatives were honest and said they were dancers. The Khmer Rouge took them away and cut them open from their necks down to their stomachs”

At the end of Pol Pot ‘s reign of terror only one in ten classical dancers of Cambodia’s Royal Court had survived. This is the story of the tenth dancer.

Em Theay (pronounced Em Te-ay ) grew up in a time of peace. Surrounded by dancers she lived in the palace grounds. She never went to school but instead learnt all the songs and gestures eventually to become a teacher with the Royal Court Ballet. Her star pupil was Sok Chea (pronounced So Cheah), who at twenty two was poised to take the principal role at the Royal Court, when Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh and the story of the killing fields began.

Em Theay and Sok Chea were separated. They both took on false identities and like everybody else went to work in the fields. Each day whilst their feet lay in mud their spirits still danced.

After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 they heard an announcement over a loudspeaker. All dancers, musicians and performers were begged to come to Phnom Penh to help rebuild the culture. They responded to this urgent call and within days arrived, thin and malnourished, only to discover that ninety percent of their colleagues had disappeared and that most of their cultural treasures had been destroyed.

But what the Khmer Rouge failed to destroy was the memory of the people. Em Theay, reunited with Sok Chea, gathered as many former dancers as possible and began teaching again the ancient stories and traditions of their ancestors.

The Tenth Dancer is a timely film, documenting the retrieval of a destroyed culture. Set in Cambodia today, it tells the remarkable story of a teacher and her pupil who are at the helm of rebuilding classical dance in Phnom Penh. We follow them in their daily practise and witness the preparation and participation of the Royal Ballet in the Cambodian New Year celebrations. New Year is the time when Cambodians pay respect to the gods who will offer protection – and rain – for the coming year. But it is also the time when Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh. Through memory and experience Em Theay and Sok Chea reveal their story of survival.

Press Quotes & Reviews

    This inspirational story reveals how a faint glimmer of hope has appeared in a country ravaged by Pol Pot’s horrific regime. Between 1975 and 1979, 90% of Cambodia’s artists were killed. Classical dance teacher Em Theay was one of the few to survive the purges of the Khmer Rouge, and she has returned to take up the leadership of the National Dance Company. This moving portrait follows the troupe’s rehearsals for the Cambodian New Year celebrations.

    ANNA FRAME, Daily Express, London UK

    A beautiful, moving, finely crafted made film.

    JOHN PILGER, London UK

    It is pleasing to imagine that in whatever rathole pol Pot is currently lurking he might see this documentary on the remarkable dancers of the cambodian Royal Court.

    PAUL POTTINGER, Sydney Morning Herald

    The Tenth Dancer is a documentary about loss and retrieval, memory and forgetting: it’s ahunted by the pressures of the past but it’s also a moving portrait of the different kinds of strengths exhibited by two women, a teacher and pupil. It shows us lives weighed down by extraordinary, almost unendurable experiences, but it’s a film with a sense of lightness and grace, like that of the Cambodian dancers who are its subjects…It’s a film which has a wonderful balance of gravity, grace and humour, and the calm, unhurried rhythms of the dance itself.

    PHILIPPA HAWKER, The Age, Melbourne

    As part of the purge of Pol Pot’s regime from 1975 to 1979, nine out of ten artists perished. Em Theay carries the guilt of survival and the responsibility of propagating a part of her culture that was almost annihilated along with the one million people who died at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The weight of this on her conscience is more implied than verbalised, which is one of the emotional strengths of the film.

    JIM SCHEMBRI, The Age, Melbourne

    (The Tenth Dancer) is a heartening and miraculous story of courage and determination which is told tonight on ABC’s Big Picture.

    Adelaide Advertiser, Adelaide
Credits
  • Writer & Director
    Sally Ingleton
  • Producers
    Sally Ingleton & Denise Patience
  • Executive Producer for the BBC
    Alan Bookbinder
  • Executive Producer for the ABC
    Harry Bardwell
  • Executive Producer for IBT
    Paddy Coulter
Awards
  • Winner
    Silver Plaque Chicago International Film Festival
  • Nominated
    Best Documentary Hawaii Film Festival
  • Honourable Mention
    Asian TV Festival, Japan
  • Winner
    Golden Gate Award: Best Art Film San Francisco International Film Festival
  • Winner
    Best Documentary 1994 Australian Teachers Of Media Award (ATOM)
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