An art school called Phare Ponleu Selpak, located in rural Cambodia along Battambang, conducts circus as a curriculum to at-risk youths in the local village. The youths are at-risk in terms of drugs, violence, prostitution and everything else due to extreme poverty. The kids are doing stuff that are superhuman in a certain way and these are children who normally work in a factory or in the rice fields without having any opportunity. I felt like there was a lot to cover with the whole backdrop of how the school actually started. To my surprise, there was a human angle to it. I heard about these two students (Sopha Nem and Dina Sok) from Battambang who got into the National Circus School of Montreal These two characters were fantastic and they were very approachable. Since 2011, I have been helping them to Skype to their parents in Cambodia and they saw me as a form of connection. I would show videos of their parents in Cambodia to them and bring videos of their training back home. I became their main link. Last year, for the first time in 5 years, I brought the students back to visit their parents. It was an emotional moment for both the parents and the boys as they have not shown physical affection for years.
The boys had great expectation and desired to join the globally renowned Cirque du Soleil. Who would even think of that? But they did. They even impressed the judges during the audition. Historically, they are the first Cambodians to actually get a shot into Cirque du Soleil. Now, there are able to spread the knowledge of their country as ambassadors in a certain way. Being the first Cambodians at Cirque du Soleil, they have broken the barrier. These kids didn’t speak French or English and they moved to a place where kids think they’re weird Cambodians as only privileged kids get the chance to attend expensive circus school. However, they are now among the best of the best in the world. They just graduated from the school in Montreal last June. One of the most interesting thing for me is the fact that they were on such a limited budget in Montreal, they were living on $30 a month, they had a dorm room and food but $30 in Montreal, you can’t even drink a cup of coffee daily with that amount. They basically got by with that $30 Joel Gershon Phare Ponleu Selpak but soon we were able to get some side jobs, one even worked illegally in a Thai restaurant. Soon they started getting circus jobs and getting more money but it was a struggle and eventually they made it through. They also received a lot of love and support from the Cambodian community in Canada. I’ve completed the project except for the final scene of them performing with Cirque du Soleil (in 2017) with all the glamour of the lighting, makeup, costume and the huge crowd. I’ve met up with Cirque du Soleil officials and they simply love the concept. My tagline for the film: ‘From the rice field to the big time’ is literally what they have done. I spent about US$25K to produce with most of the money going to equipment and travelling. I did everything on a shoestring budget and that’s possible in Cambodia.