Cambodian Textiles (Cambodia/Japan, 2018)

Light and shadows play on greenery and fabrics. Ants crawl in single file on panels of wood furniture. With its circular structure of montages of objects, shadows, and spaces, which begin and end the film, Cambodian Textiles already hints at its more existential preoccupations as opposed to sociopolitical ones compared to other documentary films on the same subjects of the late Morimoto Kikuo and Cambodian textile dyeing/weaving specifically, and the Cambodian garment industry in general.[1]

Filmmaker Utagawa Tatsuhito boldly forgoes a chronological structure that would reveal Master Artisan Morimoto’s biography for the uninitiated and instead favours one that focuses intently on the present, that is, the years of the film’s production, 2015 to 2017. Only casually through interviews peppered throughout the film does the past – Morimoto’s personal past (marriages, divorces, children) and Cambodia’s national past (Khmer Rouge, labour camps) – become a topic, be it with Morimoto or between Midori (an artisan in her own right who works with Morimoto) and some of the Cambodian weavers like Sokian and/or their families in their homes. In this regard, Cambodian Textiles is not for those who want to know about Morimoto’s training and details of his trajectory, from Japan to Thailand to Cambodia, or of the nature of Cambodia’s garment industry and workers’ politico-economic hardships.

Taking the notion of thread both literally and metaphorically, and thus presenting a surprisingly phenomenological quality, Cambodian Textiles seeks to capture rather the emotional, experiential, and social links between Morimoto and his colleagues, textiles, and places, through the footage and imagery that stress the spaces in which Morimoto and his colleagues live, work, and eat.

Encapsulating the film’s multiple twining of experiential, historical, autobiographical, and locational threads is a simple but weighty statement by Morimoto while discussing the establishment of his village/workshop and the kind of work he wanted to make and cultivate with local families knowledgeable in silk farming/cultivation:

‘Their hands remember it.’

Morimoto is very much a believer in the rhythm of the body/hand shaping the quality of processes and results in the making of silk textiles. At his self-sustaining village, he and his colleagues make all of their raw materials. Silk cocoons are pulled by hand instead of machines. A montage of silkworms on leaves, women picking the silk cocoons from twigs, sorting them, and boiling them, from which to get the silk thread that are then dyed and woven by hand, demonstrate this commitment. This commitment is carried over to weaving: over footage of weavers at their looms is Morimoto sharing how they have no premeditated design; they create the resulting shapes/patterns/images as they weave. Such spontaneous, individual craftsmanship – and authorship – is what inspired Morimoto in the first place regarding Cambodian silk weaving traditions. In an interview, he shares what he calls ‘pure art,’ the kind of by-hand textile/weaving art that his village/workshop embodies and practices, over design, which he deems inferior due to the fact that it is machine-made, thus bereft of the corporeal factor that makes such creations so distinct and significant.

Utagawa does provide several captions early in the film on how the culture and art form of silk cultivation/ weaving/dyeing in Cambodia was nearly extinguished by the Khmer Rouge. In this way, the historical is not entirely absent in the film and the captions economically provide a framework in which to understand Morimoto’s presence in Cambodia and the importance of founding the village/workshop and institute, the Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles.

The ‘corporeal factor’ so integral to Morimoto’s ethic and his role in recuperating Cambodian silk cultivation/weaving/dyeing also relates to another part of the film’s narrative, which is his health condition. Though diagnosed with bladder cancer several years ago, Morimoto opted out of surgeries and treatments, preferring a natural death. However, a substantial amount of time in the film finds Morimoto shuffling by necessity between Japan and Cambodia, in hospitals and at his village, respectively.

But there is no (self-)pitying gaze for Morimoto and his illness, perhaps in part at Morimoto’s request. There is no pitying, victimising gaze that would situate Morimoto as an economic saviour in relation to the Cambodian community either. If anything, what Morimoto subtly and constantly implies in his interviews is his integration into the local spaces and communities.

For if the here-and-now is one constant in the film, another constant is respect. Respect for village life, the forests that surround it, and the history and traditions that inhabit them, all of which prompted Morimoto to plant his roots in Cambodia and establish his village/workshop and institute. For Morimoto, Cambodian village life and forests are what make the textiles richer in quality – and by extension the community bonds stronger. As he tells the University of Nagoya students who visit him at the village/workshop, ‘You don’t protect tradition, you make it.’

This element of respect, for the environment, traditions, culture, and human beings, seems to have also dictated the movement of the film and its imagery. Yes, people are presumably struggling (at one point, there is talk of late wages). But the social, emotional bonds that are woven at the village/workshop are at times contrasted with ‘the town,’ with the implication that the latter is inferior as a social and existential space. Such is Morimoto’s own attitude, regarding work and life.


[1] See, for example, Japanese television station NHK’s Side by Side: A Town Where Textiles and Women Thrive (2018), The Silk Grandmothers: Weaving a new life from a lost art (2007, dir. Emily Taguchi), or more generally, the series of German-Cambodian short documentaries on the garment industry in the country, A Day in the Cambodian Garment Factory (2015).