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(cover picture) Nikles, Brigitte Nikles &Tommi Mendel
2011 Bunong's Birth Practices Between Tradition and Change. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 53 minutes
Reviewed 19 Feb 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Birth customs - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province) - Case studies
Mnong (Vietnamese people) - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province) - Social life and customs
Mnong (Vietnamese people) - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province) - Rites and ceremonies
Childbirth - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province)
Midwives - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province) - Interviews
Midwifery - Cambodia - Mondoil Kiri (Province)

ABSTRACT:    This thoughtful film shows the clash--and also the syncretism--of traditional and modern-scientific concepts and practices surrounding childbirth in villages in Cambodia.

Modernization and globalization have affected virtually every aspect of every culture--but always in diverse and incomplete ways. One of the many areas of culture that modernity has often explicitly set out to change and to 'improve' is healthcare and medical practice, which is frequently connected to the equally modernizing notions of sexuality. These currents converge in the area of birth practices.

As the interesting and informative film describes, "Mondulkiri province is located in the north-eastern highland region of Cambodia. The province has a population of around 53,000 inhabitants of which approximately 53% are Bunong, one of Cambodia's indigenous groups. Due to the profit-oriented industrial and settlement politics of the Cambodian government, vast demographic and socio-economic changes have occurred during the last decade. Affected are also the practices, beliefs and perceptions regarding pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood among the Bunong."

The film opens with a myth about how humans learned proper birthing practices from monkeys (before that, babies were supposedly always cut out of the woman's stomach, killing her, so the original 30 men and 30 women never increased in number). The film then switches back and forth between various villages and social settings to explore the complex interplay of modern and traditional birthing procedures. At Lauka village we meet Chuch Den, a traditional midwife, and anthropologist Brigitte Nikles, and Chuch Den tells the story of how she became a midwife at this village. In Busra village, a young woman claims that it is 'modern' to go to the health clinic to give birth. Her husband also mentions that there is a traditional taboo against being too happy about a baby before its birth, as well as the tradition of putting umbilical cord in forest.

The scene shifts to the Busra Health Center, where a traditional midwife explains that she and the modern nurse do the same checks on the abdomen but that nurses can give modern medicine and handle more difficult deliveries. Back at Lauka, Chuch Den says that a midwife must have a proper knowledge, but the family must also respect the spirits. In Putrom village there is a pregnant woman who is unsure about whether to go to the clinic or to use the village midwife; she complains about the cost of the clinic but insists that if she can she will go to the hospital.

Reflecting the modernist position, the Director of Mondulkiri Health Department (incidentally, a male) argues that midwives actually cost more than clinic but that village women wrongly think that the hospital is expensive: "Bunong people are ignorant, that's why they believe what other people say," he says. Interestingly, the clinics allow villagers to perform some of their traditions and rituals, but he also treats the presence of the villagers as an educational opportunity, to teach "that there are actually medical reasons for each sickness, unlike in the traditional thinking." "Rituals are not equal to medical practice. Traditional belief is in itself darkness, it is primitive. It is a belief in magic. It is not the right way to believe."

At Poirepet village, every woman here delivers at home, not the clinic, because no one has money; besides, the local health center has no separate room for deliveries and no nurse. At the Busra village health center, a new mother and her family enjoy their newborn; following tradition, the family places hot coals under her bed. Meanwhile, in Lauka Chuch Den reports that a French NGO invited her and others to a training course, where she learned a lot that she still uses. She "follows the new way" like cutting the umbilical cord. She claims that sh has had only one bad experience, when a former boyfriend put a spell on the pregnant woman. At Busra we join a woman just after giving birth, who has been in the birth-house for nine days. Tomorrow, the family will do the lih lieng ceremony "to thank the relatives and everybody who supported us," according to husband--and to "prevent the bad spirits from coming." The previously-introduced health director returns to comment that the health department brought some midwives together to teach them about hygiene and to recognize danger signs, "but they don't recognize dangerous situations." They are only successful in easy births, he maintains. The film shows the villagers watching his comments on a laptop computer, and Chuch Den actually agrees, asserting that some midwives send the difficult cases to the hospital too late. The director says that the province and the entire country need more development and education, but "the traditional midwives have limited knowledge and cannot improve." The villagers agree at least that most midwives cannot read and write.

Despite all the modernization pressures (and successes), at Busra at major postpartum ritual is held. The husband tells the anthropologist that they pray for the whole family, to send away evil and invite good. Since the husband is the only Catholic in the family, he does not join in their traditional prayer. The film depicts the sharing of rice and money; the ritual also entails placing cotton on mother's head. Most surprisingly, saliva is important in the ritual and the traditional religion: "To spit means the prayers come from the heart and are meaningful. Spit is like a bridge between us and the spirits. It's important that all different spirits can hear our words." Saliva thus carries the words to the spirits. Kinfolk give the baby money and wish it luck and health.

During ceremony, a man says, "We want to follow the new way and still keep our traditions. Spirits, please understand us." And this is indeed the message of the film and of much of the research on modernization and tradition: modernizers like physicians and politicians may feel that the locals are backward and stubborn--and the locals may agree--but modern scientific culture does not entirely drive away tradition. Rather, modernity and tradition find ways to coexist. In a word, Bunong birth practices today are both modern and traditional, and the film well illustrates the struggle between and yet the integration of modernity and tradition.

Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of sexuality/reproduction, anthropology of religion, anthropology of modernization/culture change, and Southeast Asian studies, as well as general audiences.