Cambodia on the Documentary Map By Lars Movin

in 9th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Lars Movin

While the world is still waiting for the responsible Khmer Rouge leaders to be brought to justice, documentary filmmakers are now beginning to shed some light on various aspects of the often harsh realities of present day Cambodia, a country which is still struggling to overcome the crimes of the past. Khmer Rouge might have been reduced to some tiny fractions hiding out in the jungle, and Pol Pot might finally be dead and gone, but the effects of decades, if not centuries, of conflicts and wars, culminating in the four years of madness, violence and killings in the late 1970s, are still very visible in the once so powerful kingdom which in an ancient past produced wonders like the Angkor Wat.

In recent years we have seen a number of documentaries on Khmer Rouge and their crimes, quite a few of them made by Rithy Panh, who was born in Cambodia in 1964. He escaped to Thailand in 1979 and is currently living in France. Among his most well-known films are titles like Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy (1996) and S21, the Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2002), both very important insights into a not very long gone past, especially because three quarters of Cambodia’s population is born after the fall of Khmer Rouge.

If we consider these documents of the atrocities of Khmer Rouge to constitute a first wave of documentaries on Cambodia, what we see now could be regarded a second wave, focusing on the everyday life of the survivors and their children. Three new films fall into this category.

The most artistically accomplished of the three is Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers (Le papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise, France, 2006), again by Rithy Panh. This time Panh has left the perpetrators and locations of the crimes of the past and entered a building somewhere in the slums of Phnom Penh where 300 young women live and work as prostitutes. Most of the women have come from the poor rural districts, uneducated and defenseless, looking for work and a better future, hoping to be able to send money back to their families. But instead they have been caught up in a vicious circle, selling their bodies for a few dollars (of which they receive only a small fraction), sinking into a mire of drug abuse, violence and self hatred, and being exposed to unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other diseases.

Stories like these have been heard a million times before, but not told in quite this way. Panh moves in very close with his main characters, and obviously he has gained their trust. Except for a few short segments shot in the streets the camera stays inside the building, exploring the intimate life of the women between their jobs. They talk and play, cry and sleep, cook and eat. They put on make-up and prepare themselves for the next humiliating and painful encounter, and they dream about a different life or try to escape their fate for a few moments of drugged-out oblivion. Whatever the women do the camera just observes, in long steady shots, often in careful framings with beautiful colors, but at the same time with a constant, bluesy undercurrent of spleen and doom. The film runs for 90 minutes, and time is a crucial factor. As a viewer you really get the sensation of entering into this claustrophobic micro-cosmos, but at the same time the film has a feeling of being staged, a strange sense of subdued drama playing itself out somewhere between distance and authenticity and resulting in an almost eerie otherworldliness, which makes its characters linger in the memory long after leaving the soft darkness of the cinema.

A much more direct and conventional approach is found in New Year Baby (USA, 2006), a travelogue by first-time filmmaker Socheata Poeuv. Having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand , and later raised in Dallas, Texas, Poeuv grew up with very limited knowledge of the Cambodia her parents escaped. And a few years prior to the start of her film project she realized that not only did she not know much about her family’s background, but in fact there was quite a lot she didn’t even know about her most intimate family relations – like that her mother was not really her mother, and her sisters not really her sisters (but cousins). What she was brought up to believe was a tightly knit family was in fact a group of people pieced together of individuals who had all lost their real families to the Khmer Rouge. A family of fate rather than of blood.

With these secrets out of the closet the Poeuv family sets out on a journey back to Cambodia , an odyssey, during which they not only confront the horrors of the past but also grow much closer to each other. The film is well structured and all its characters likeable, it is both lighthearted and entertaining and touching and sincere, but what makes it especially strong as a documentary is the fact that Poeuv has succeeded not only in weaving the difficulties of making a film with your own family into the fabric of her narration but also with her persistence and love to push her parents to a point where they undergo actual changes, both in their attitudes and their relationships – all during the course of the shooting.

The third and final film – Aki Ra’s Boys (Cambodia, 2006) by James Leong and Lynn Lee – is less remarkable in an artistic sense than the two first, but nevertheless interesting for its subject. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, if not the most, and since the collapse of Khmer Rouge in 1979 about 20,000 children have been crippled by landmines. One of them is Boreak who lost an arm when he stepped on a mine. He was eight years old, and after the accident his parents sent him to a home in Siem Reap for landmine victims. Leong and Lee follows the dynamic youngster who is trying to overcome his handicap by insisting on doing what all young boys do, and even more so. The film doesn’t have much narrative structure, it mainly lets Boreak act out his tremendous energy in front of the camera, but it adds an extra dimension in the form of a reassuring relationship between the young protagonist and his older friend, Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge member who used to place landmines and now has dedicated his life to removing them, and to helping victims like Boreak.

The three films are very different in their approaches, but seen together they show the contours, not only of a new generation of Cambodian born filmmakers, but also of a new generation of Cambodians who, even though they are born after 1979, are living with the grim past and dealing with all kinds of wounds – mental, physical, social and cultural – but who nevertheless are insisting on the hope of a better future. And, each in their own way, the films confirm why we need documentary filmmakers: to show us that behind the gruesome statistics of two million deaths lies not only faceless numbers and stereotypes of good and evil, but millions of individual stories all made up of complex combinations of all kinds of feelings, moods and character traits.