World Cinema: Cambodians take hard self-look

Reporting from Phnom Pehn, Cambodia —

On an unseasonably cool evening last month, nearly 700 people filed into the Chenla Theater for the final night of the inaugural Cambodia International Film Festival. The four-day event had drawn sizable audiences to films from more than 30 countries, but it was the premiere on this night of a Cambodian film called “Lost Loves” that attracted the festival’s largest crowd. As TV crews angled for shots of the well-coifed cast members stepping onto the red carpet, inside the theater multigenerational families chatted excitedly and students snapped cellphone photos and waved to friends.

“Lost Loves” tells the true story of a woman who lost most of her family during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, which oversaw the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Although the brutal communist regime has proved fertile ground for many foreign productions, most notably “The Killing Fields,” which won three Academy Awards in 1984, “Lost Loves,” by 45-year-old Chhay Bora, is the first feature film about the Khmer Rouge by an all-Cambodian cast and crew in nearly 25 years. It is only the second such movie made since the regime’s demise (the first, a mid-1980s action movie called “Shadow of Darkness,” did not make much of an impression here).

Together with another landmark Cambodian-made film released this year, “Enemies of the People,” a documentary co-directed by and starring 42-year-old journalist Thet Sambath that examines the motives behind the mass slaughter, the movies are a sign that Cambodian filmmakers are finally ready to grapple with the traumas of the past.


“The Khmer Rouge has been a complex and political issue for a long time. But after 30 years, Cambodia is ready to cope with this,” said Chhang Youk, a survivor and the country’s foremost researcher of the regime. “You will begin to see more films about this subject now.”

Both directors, who are self-taught and were boys during the Khmer Rouge, said their goal in making the films was to spur discussion about a topic that many people here would prefer to forget. “Helping people understand history is the most important thing I can do,” Thet Sambath said. “I want Cambodians to know the truth about what happened. Then we can move forward as a country.”

The films are generating a level of discussion about the Khmer Rouge that is rare in Cambodia. During many harrowing scenes in “Lost Loves,” there were gasps from the audience, and many cried. “I’m no longer angry about the Khmer Rouge,” Chhay Bora, who lost two brothers to the regime, told the crowd. “I just want to share with the nation, and with the world, Cambodia’s untold story.”

“When our parents tell us about their experiences during the Khmer Rouge, we have a hard time believing them,” Lim Seang Heng, a 22-year-old university graduate, said after the premiere, echoing a common sentiment. “Telling stories is not enough, because we can’t see. Film allows us to see.”


Although “Lost Loves” and “Enemies of the People” are very different movies — the former focuses on the nightmarish experiences of one family, while the latter investigates larger issues such as motives and reconciliation — they are complementary.

“Lost Loves,” co-written by and starring Chhay Bora’s wife, actress Kauv Sotheary, follows Phnom Penh resident Amara, a character based on the actress’ mother, as she is shipped with her family into a forced labor camp in the countryside. She endures overwork, near starvation and the death of family members before emerging from her nightmare shellshocked, yet defiantly hopeful, after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

Shot in the Cambodian countryside, “Lost Loves” is at times strikingly beautiful, featuring wide-angle shots of shimmering rice paddies and skies smeared purple with the setting sun. But these scenes are punctuated by acts of brutality, turning the landscape into a “prison of torture and killing,” as Amara says in the film.

As Amara adapts to this alien world, the familiar structures of Cambodian life crumble around her: She is separated from her family, cruel and uneducated children take positions of authority over adults, and unending, grinding labor under the hot sun becomes the central fact of her life. The mysterious Angkar (“organization” in English), the Khmer Rouge’s name for itself, is omnipresent yet somehow always hidden. “The village chiefs endlessly talked about Angkar, Angkar, Angkar, but I didn’t know what Angkar was,” Amara says in the film.

“Enemies of the People,” which was just named as one of 15 contenders for the Academy Award for best documentary feature, attempts to answer some of Amara’s questions. Director Thet Sambath, a reporter

at the English-language Phnom Penh Post, spent 10 years traveling alone with a camera into the countryside to interview Nuon Chea, second in command to the late leader Pol Pot and the regime’s highest-ranking surviving leader, and foot soldiers who carried out the regime’s murderous policies.

English director Rob Lemkin worked with Thet Sambath to craft this raw footage into a finished film. The director was driven by a need to understand the killers’ motives (his parents and brother died under the Khmer Rouge) and to share what he found with other Cambodians.

“No one has confessed to killing during the regime,” he said. “I felt that maybe I could talk to the killers and understand why they killed.”


In “Enemies of the People,” Nuon Chea admits for the first time on record that the leadership ordered executions, about which he expresses remorse. But it is the director’s interviews with two low-level killers, Soun and Khoun, that are most haunting. They speak matter-of-factly about killing their victims by slashing their throats, dumping their bodies in mass graves and, in one scene, drinking bile from a human gall bladder.

Although it was men like Soun and Khoun who killed Thet Sambath’s brother, the director was able to forgive them, an act of reconciliation that he hopes can be repeated throughout Cambodia. “I pity them. They don’t understand how they ended up becoming killers,” he said. In the film, Soun says he’s haunted by shame and regret. “But I want to tell the truth exactly as it happened,” he says onscreen. “Otherwise we will be gone soon and the next generation won’t know the story.”

The directors could not turn for help to the country’s few film studios, which invest mostly in low-budget horror movies, the only reliable way to draw audiences to the two remaining cinemas in Phnom Penh. “People told me I was crazy to make this kind of film,” Chhay Bora said. Regardless, the films have drawn capacity audiences at screenings in Phnom Penh, and there are plans to show them in rural Cambodia through unconventional means, such as at community forums held by nongovernmental organizations.