An outstanding Cambodian documentary – Enemies of the People

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Investigative journalist Thet Sambath is a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post and over 10 years he went about interviewing victims and soldiers in search of why Pol Pot and his generals did what they did. After all, there is a rich collection of literature telling the story from the point of view of the victims, but the story from the Khmer Rouge point of view was greyed-out, even during the time of their reign of terror in the 1970s. It took more than a year before Pol Pot even revealed himself to the public – preferring to rule by secrecy until 1977.

Sambath is an amazing journalist who digs into the story in a characteristically Cambodian way: preferring not to be confrontational but to win the friendship and trust of those he interviews. I found his treatment of two soldiers, youngsters at the time they carried guns for the Khmer Rouge, particularly moving. At first the soldiers say they weren’t involved and cannot remember the details, but gradually the journalist takes them to the point where they realise that confessing what they did – one of the two men recalls throwing babies in the air and bayoneting them with the sword on the end of his rifle – is the only way to release themselves from the nightmares they have nursed for decades. The men weep with horror and shame at what they did. “What will I return as?” one asks rhetorically, recounting the rules of Buddhism.

Following a trail that emerges with each time he asks: “who gave your the orders? Why did so many people die in the killing fields?” Sambath eventually finds himself at the doorstep of  former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, Pol Pots’s right hand man.

Chea insists that the regime had to get rid of “enemies of the people” but he cannot adequately address the core fact: that those in power were simply executing everyday Cambodians. Who, if not these leaders, were the real enemies of the people?

Nuon Chea is a arrogantly proud man, deluded perhaps, but through the lens of Sambath’s camerawork still human. Not a monster, but a deeply flawed man who, ultimately, is arrested to face trial.

This is a stunning movie, and has won multiple prestigious awards since being released in 2011. One hurdle, it has had to overcome, is that the Cambodian Government decreed it was too sensitive to release in Cambodia. The producers were working last year to ensure that at least through DVD release it might be viewed by Cambodians themselves.

Watch the trailer – click here.

More on Khmer film click here.

A Killing Field Documentary – a model movie

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While I ponder on RUN – the new Cambodian Zombie movie, one other Khmer film I saw this year was the excellent though in some regards harrowing documentary The Missing Picture.  A 2013 Cambodian documentary film directed by Rithy Panh about the Khmer Rouge the movie screened to great acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the top prize. The film was also selected as the Cambodian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.

The film is the personal account, by the director’narrator, of his family’s experience under the Khmer Rouge, and because there is no record – the missing picture theme – of what happened, the film maker uses clay models to ‘re-enact’ the story. There is something about the crude simplicity of those models that makes the story more powerful – more subject to the terrors of the imagination.

I saw the film with a friend in New Zealand, Chakara Lim, who is an energetic champion for the local Khmer community in my city, and I asked him after the film about his thoughts. Strangely, he said, he felt somewhat unmoved despite the fact that the details of the story – the years of starvation, of families being turned against themselves, of good people being brutally punished for showing acts of compassion – all these things rang true to his own experience.

We are both storytellers and we discussed this: concluding that the narrator remains a voice behind the camera and his detachment makes it hard to sympathise.

So mixed reviews here – but I’d recommend the movie if you can find it on DVD. The history of the Pol  Pot years is a story that needs sharing and consideration: it indelibly stains the landscape of the modern Khmer people.

Into cinema? See how a new Cambodian Zombie Movie makes its mark.

Cambodian Zombies – they’re here!

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Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the decades before Pol Pot, but today the low entry price of digital is enabling the Khmer film industry to find it’s feet…and other missing limbs. Run is the first ever Khmer Zombie flick.

The nascent Cambodian movie industry is finding its feet at present – as well as a few other stray limbs and severed heads. This last month a new local movie has been launched successfully: a zombie flick that cost $10,000 to shoot. The name of the movie is “Run.”

Come view the trailer. (CLICK HERE)

While Cambodia has a strong history of ghost movies and supernatural tales, this film represents a 21st Century departure for the once thriving film industry – borrowing heavily from the western Zombie tropes, but putting a Khmer spin on the storyline. The Cinematography is by a western cameraman, but the movie is distinctly a product of Phnom Penh. Watching the trailer I couldn’t help but think that the zombie virus is a metaphor for many other things (corruption, western values, civil unrest) just as surely as those American-made 1950s Monster from Outer Space films were a metaphor for the lingering Communist menace of the time.

The movie features an ex-champion Khmer boxer, and at least one zombie victim who – in reality – lost limbs in landmine accidents. A black reminder of other forces that once invaded the Kingdom of Cambodia.

See more about Cambodian Movies.

Still I Strive – Uplifting Cambodian Documentary

STILL I STRIVE

Cambodian stories in the past two decades have been dominated, quite understandably, by the echoes of the Pol Pot era. Already many accounts of that awful period have been told, and many, many more are due to be shared.

But in Cambodia there is a nascent body of forward looking works -in literature, in film and in music – that exude hope and humanity and recapture the spirit that existed before the 1970s.

Among these is the documentary Still I Strive which is the story of a Phnom Penh orphanage (National Action Culture Assn. orphanage) that gives the children not only a good basic education, but also training in dance and acting. The dream is to perform for the Royal Family.

Released late in 2012, Variety gave the documentary a glowing review.

The power of performing arts to restore hope to damaged young lives is marvelously captured in “Still I Strive,” an uplifting chronicle of the curriculum at the National Action Culture Assn. orphanage in Phnom Penh. Going one mightily impressive step further than standard-issue fare, the docu combines footage of training and rehearsals with an apt action-adventure yarn starring these highly talented children. A winning debut by co-helmers Adam Pfleghaar and A. Todd Smith, pic should enjoy a lengthy fest run following its world preem at Busan. Pubcasters should check it out.

Following brief subtitled info stating that 50% of Cambodia’s population is less than 25 years old, and many thousands of children are orphans or come from severely dysfunctional homes, the docu launches with an exciting action sequence. In an open field, an army of child warriors engages in some strong but not-too-violent combat with same-age enemies wearing fearsome-looking white facepaint.

Performers are orphans from Naca, where education in the three R’s is matched by high-level instruction in theater, dance and music. According to association founder Su Savang and head instructor Peng Phan (lead femme thesp in Rithy Panh’s 1994 “Rice People”), training and performance has played a major role in helping to heal the children’s trauma.

Supporting evidence is written all over the smiling faces of youngsters as they take lessons in acting, singing and classical ballet in preparation for the regular Friday night performance at Phnom Penh’s night market. The docu’s central dramatic thread concerns kids’ dream of reaching a high enough standard to perform for Princess Bopha Devi, the greatly admired royal, once the lead dancer of the Royal Cambodian Ballet in the 1960s.

While accentuating the many positives of the story, Pfleghaar and Smith sensitively examine the deeply troubled backgrounds of four children — Real Rothana, Jin Kunthea, Heng Chham and Vin Lyny, all between 7 and about 14 years old. Many auds will shed a tear as the four recall sometimes horrific memories one moment and express unbridled optimism about themselves and their country’s future the next.

Dramatic footage is well constructed to meaningfully mirror what’s happening in and around the orphanage. Picking up new members as they wander through the countryside, the warrior children are being chased by ghosts from the past; their ultimate quest is to seek an audience with a princess. Confidently performed by all the kids, this material packs a genuine star turn by Rothana as the group’s leader. (Rothana says he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up; on evidence seen here, if he does, it’ll be acting’s loss.)

Inventively edited and elegantly lensed with some terrific crane shots in the dramatic segs, the docu is several technical cuts above the ordinary. Composer Michael Reola contributes rousing original songs and a lovely score that includes spine-tingling use of the khem, a traditional stringed instrument. All other tech work is on the money.

To view the trailer, click here.

For more on Cambodian Culture – the Golden Age of Cambodian Pop

For another quite different Cambodian movie – Run: the first Khmer Zombie flick!