How many times since we’ve been working in Cambodia (1994) have we heard accounts of the story: April 17, 1975, the ‘liberators’ led by Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, force an evacuation of all of the cities in Cambodia and begin a so-called agrarian revolution that ends in the elimination and murder of 2 million Khmer or a quarter of the population of Cambodia or some horrific number depending on whose account one hears. Nowhere, however, is that story told with more force than in the German film “Kampuchea: Death and Rebirth” which screened last night here in Phnom Penh in a special showing for the five USF law students who are studying war crimes and experiencing first-hand the Cambodia that fell victim to Pol Pot’s reign of terror and the culmination of decades of colonial domination – a destruction from which Cambodia struggles to recover to this day.
We all took tuk-tuks (which have taken over the city in the past five years, colorful ‘carriages’ pulled by a motorcycle) to the Meta House where Nicco, the German owner and his Cambodian wife, prepared a simple curry dinner atop their multi-story building that houses an art gallery, bar and small ‘theater’ where the film was shown. In fact, Meta House is in some ways is a metaphor for the decades-long recovery of this maimed country: an effort to create community, rejuvenate art, provide a meeting place, a cold beer (sort of cold), and the inevitable hang out for the ex-pat community that is ever present as aid projects from around the globe continue (the headline in today’s Phnom Penh Post reports that 3.0 billion in assistance is slated for Cambodia through 2013.)
We all walk up flights of steep stairs to the patio on the roof where dinner was served in the open air. Adjacent to it is the bar and a screening area where films are regularly shown – a theater that seats perhaps 50 and a sizeable screen on the wall.
Kampuchea: Death and Rebirth was filmed right after the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia in 1979 bringing a formal end to the Pol Pot time although the KR resistance continued into the 1990s. The film begins with footage of the ceremonial signing of the agreement between the KR and the Vietnamese as a backdrop to the April 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh and the unimaginable terror, mayhem and destruction that followed. 90 minutes later one is drained by the stories of suffering and loss. Even the return to the cities, the ouster of Pol Pot and the KR, and heartening and moving scenes of students returning to abandoned schools that sat empty for years cannot erase the sense that the trauma will never fully end. Sitting amid dust and ruble as they return to Phnom Penh, Khmer, young and old, bear witness to the starvation, forced labor, and death of virtually all of their families. The survivors find it as incomprehensible as we do to this day: The killing of their own by their own.
Yet, there is a more than a glimmer of the indominatbility of the human spirit as small children begin again to learn to read and as teachers return to school rooms when just months before intellectuals – as they were called – were routinely slaughtered. In a moving scene, the young KR still barely in their teens, now prisoners, recount how they became cold blooded murderers. The film notes poignantly that these “murderers” were themselves victims of the Pol Pot time, having been ordered to murder the very people – the so-called intellectuals – who could have educated them.
The film seems interminable. Not because it is too long, but because of the pain it evokes from the voices on the screen and to me (and I suspect all of us) as the scenes continue: the starvation, the words of Sary’s wife, the supreme KR apologist claiming it all the fault of the Vietnamese juxtaposed brilliantly with the actual plight and words of the Cambodians imprisoned, shots of Toul Sleng, a shot of an abandoned school being reclaimed with the grisly find of human remains in a freezer left there by the KR who occupied the site for four years, and on…and on…and on. And finally, we are back where the movie began – at the ceremonial signing, knowing now the reality behind the handshakes and the and the embraces of the KR and the Vietnamese.
As the movie ends, we all traipse down the steep, uneven stairs. There is little to say. What could one say? But the movie is a fitting prelude to the students as they prepare for a moot court presentation that they will be making on Wednesday at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (D Cam). They know and must feel that this is no academic undertaking. The arguments they make are being played out in real time at the tribunal and involve the lives and deaths of real people – tragically millions of them.