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If you need any proof that learning is a perpetual process, just ask Professor Martine Guyot-Bender about her sabbatical. She is coming off a semester of research in Cambodia and France, where she studied both contemporary emerging Cambodian film and the cultural history of the railroad in France, a combination of topics that — illuminating as it was — reminded her largely of how much there is to learn.

Martine Guyot-Bender Professor of French and Francophone Studies Martine Guyot-Bender

Guyot-Bender began with a fellowship funded by the Center for Khmer Studies, an organization that she says aims to encourage and broaden research on historical and cultural aspects of Cambodia. While there, she interviewed a dozen or so up-and-coming filmmakers alongside studying the work of Rithy Panh, a renowned documentary director with whom she was already familiar and founder of the Bophana Audiovisual Center in Phnom Penh where she spent most of her time. Dating back to her dissertation, Guyot-Bender has been interested in how the memory of war is represented in texts, films, novels, postcards, maps, and monuments, she explains, an orientation with which Panh’s work — which examines the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime — aligns exactly.

“It’s amazing how much I got to learn about in such a short time, because people were so willing to share.”

Many of these new filmmakers, Guyot-Bender notes, have been influenced by Panh. Some of their films and his now feature in her Picturing War course, which focuses on the written and pictorial representations of wars, she says. To learn about these themes in the Cambodian context, her research involved interviews and “a lot of coincidences,” Guyot-Bender says.

“One person introduced me to someone else, who showed me another film … it’s amazing how much I got to learn about in such a short time, because people were so willing to share,” she adds.

Though she traveled to southeast Asia with film in mind, the trip took on additional relevance later while Guyot-Bender was studying the cultural history and place of trains in France. This second portion of her sabbatical was geared toward her course All Aboard! Trains in French History. “The history of trains in Cambodia is very complex,” she says. “My class will now include a unit on the impact of trains in the colonial expansion.”

Reflecting on her work over the previous few months, especially Cambodian cinema, Guyot-Bender spoke humbly about her status as a scholar in a region where she is an outsider. “I know my limits, I know what I can say and feel confident about—but these are complicated issues, and I still don’t know enough,” she says. “But I can now put it on the map, I can talk about the colonial period, I can make a link to the horrible wars that followed … if I’m prudent, I can explain some things.”

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