Documentary film, 65 minutes, 2004

Monkey Dance is a documentary film about three teens coming of age in Lowell, Massachusetts. Children of Cambodian refugees, they inhabit a tough, working class world shadowed by their parents’ nightmares of the Khmer Rouge. Traditional Cambodian dance links them to their parents’ culture, but fast cars, hip consumerism, and good times often pull harder. For the parents, Lowell held the hope of safety, employment, and a chance to finally rebuild some of what was shattered by the Khmer Rouge. But for their children, the city offers a dizzying array of choices – many of them risky. Monkey Dance is the story of how three kids navigate the confusing landscape of urban adolescence and ultimately start to make good on their parents’ dreams.

Samnang Hor, an athletic 16-year-old born in a refugee camp in Thailand, is driven to achieve to make up for his two older brothers, who dropped out of high school because of their involvement with gangs and drugs. Sam works hard, and his mentors encourage him to see education as a way out of the ghetto. On the exciting day he receives his college acceptance letters, he also realizes that getting into school is only part of the challenge – finding money to pay for it may be even harder.


Linda Sou is a freewheeling 17-year-old who struggles to overcome the shame cast on her family when her older sister was imprisoned for murdering an abusive boyfriend. Linda has been dancing since age three, when her father founded the Angkor Dance Troupe to preserve Cambodian culture in America. But as she grows up, her commitment to the troupe wavers and she becomes enamored of boys and fast cars. Finally a trip to Cambodia  brings Linda a new awareness of her parents’ losses and sacrifices.

Sochenda Uch, a lanky, fashion-conscious 16-year-old, works a series of part-time jobs to pay for the necessities and accessories of teen life – while his mother worries that he doesn’t study hard enough. Too many distractions soon take their toll: Sochenda’s grades start to slide, leading him to be rejected from all the colleges he applies to.   Only after another year and a half of hard work to get into college does Sochenda begin to understand what success or failure means, both for himself and his family.

Dance – both traditional and modern – is ultimately what makes a difference for these kids. They belong to the Angkor Dance Troupe, a rigorous performance group preserving Cambodian dance traditions almost lost when 90% of its practitioners were killed in the violence of the Khmer Rouge. Cambodian dance provides Linda, Sam, and Sochenda with a unique connection to their parents’ culture at a time when many immigrant kids reject traditional culture as irrelevant to their lives here in America.  By making the dance their own, each of these young people forge a link with the past while also finding their way in America, where creativity, self-expression, and individual achievement are critical keys to success.



Produced in association with the Independent Television Service, the Center for Asian American Media, and WGBH-TV with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional support was provided by: Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and LEF Moving Image Fund.


MONKEY DANCE is available for purchase by educational institutions and non-profit organizations. Please contact one of the two distributors: Berkeley Media LLC or the Center for Asian American Media.

Professionally produced Viewers' Guides (ages 14 to adult) are available for purchase in packs of 10 for $20. Classroom Activities packets (grades 8-12) are available in packs of 10 for $12.50. Email to place an order or request sample PDF pages.