In a country where artistic talents were once relegated to political propaganda or trinkets for tourists, the people behind Meta House are working to recapture Cambodia’s creative minds.
Meta House is a modern art gallery and movie house, regularly exhibiting Cambodian art and screening historically relevant films. But beyond the paintings hanging in the exhibition hall, the spirit of Meta House lies in the community of artists that congregate and show their work there — a veritable who’s who of artists, photographers and journalists — and in their shared understanding of art.
“It’s not really a Western approach — art for the sake of art,” says Meta House founder Nico Mesterharm, a journalist and filmmaker from Berlin. “Here in Cambodia art should connect to the living conditions of the moment. Art should contribute to development. Artists should make a stand.”
To that end, Meta House serves to remind people of their social duties while educating them about the country’s turbulent political history.
Working closely with artist and fellow German Lydia Parusol, Mesterharm has built Meta House on the philosophy of using art to help assuage Cambodia’s past and build a more certain future.
“Commercial artists want to forget their past,” Parusol told Dutch writer Marjan Terpstra in a November 2008 interview. “They would rather paint the cheap sunsets and patty fields that the tourists want to buy. Cambodia’s true art scene is concentrating on the country’s current social problems like the environment and property theft.”
The program at Meta House revolves heavily around documentaries and shows anywhere from three to five films every night in its open-aired roof-top theater.
“My personal experience is mainly in directing and producing documentary films,” says Mesterharm. “So I have a strong film program that is centered on showing the public films that deal with real and current socio-political topics.”
Highlights of the March schedule are numerous, beginning with a Friday the 13th showing of the 1967 film “A Face of War,” which the New York times called “one of the most authentic, intimate and remarkable war records ever.”
More directly related to Cambodia, the schedule includes survivors’ stories and Khmer Rouge documentaries.
“Out of the Poison Tree,” playing Saturday, March 14, tells the story of Khmer-American Thida Buth Mam, who returns to Cambodia hoping to unlock the mystery of her father’s disappearance in 1975.
“Freedom Writers,” featuring Hillary Swank and playing Saturday March 21, offers a polished Hollywood look at inner-city life in Long Beach, California, home to more than 50,000 Cambodians.
“We Want You to Know,” playing Sunday the 22nd, features stunning scenes created by rural Khmer Rouge survivors as they document their lives under Pol Pot’s regime.
In addition to the movies, the art at Meta House also focuses on facilitating post-war recovery. As art manager, Parusol has played a major part in producing “Art of Survival,” the centerpiece of Meta’s art program.
“Art of Survival” is an ongoing body of work created by Cambodian artists reflecting on the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath.
Most famous among the contributors to “Art of Survival” are Vann Nath, an artist and survivor of Tuol Sleng, and the late Svay Ken.
“Ultimately we want to create here a scene that benefits everybody,” says Mesterharm.
Through its contributions to education and art, Meta House is doing just that.
Meta House is open to the public everyday at 6 p.m. It’s located at Number 6, Street 264, near Wat Botum.