Documentary Confronts a Violent Past Through the Lens of Others

Filmmaker Ella Pugliese, who along with her colleague Nou Va is finishing up a documentary about surviving the Khmer Rouge, doesn’t know what to call herself in the credits.

She can’t quite call herself director, she said; there are as many directors as there are actors in her film.

The film, tentatively titled “We Want (U) To Know,” which will open May 7 at the Chenla Theater, is a participatory film; rather than arrive with a script and interview survivors of Democratic Kampuchea, the filmmakers chose to engage one village in Takeo province in deciding how to present their lives during and since the regime.

“This is not as if we played in the film from the filmmaker’s idea; everything comes from our own memories,” said Dam Orn, 53, one of the participants from Tnol Lok village in Kiri Vong district, who has lived alone for the more than 30 years since her husband and four sons were killed during the regime.

The villagers’ suggestions caught the filmmakers off guard: They wanted to re-enact for the camera some of the crimes committed against their families. The filmmakers, trying to be sensitive to their subjects’ suffering, would have never been so forward, Ms Pugliese said.

One frail, old woman, who rarely ever left her home, made the one-hour trip to the pagoda where her husband was arrested, Ms Pugliese recalled. There, she directed the amateur actors re-enacting the last time she saw him alive.

“In this moment, I really had the feeling seeing her face that she felt ‘Ah, I did it,’” Ms Pugliese said, imitating the woman’s sigh of relief.

Participants interviewed said they were motivated by a desire to have their personal and national history recorded.

“I am happy that I had a chance to show people what happened to my family,” said Som Vutha, 57, sobbing as she recalled the loss of 11 family members. “It was a hard time and I still suffer from that regime. It was a good opportunity for me; I want to show new generations what happened.”

The film, funded by DED, Ger-

many’s development agency, seeks to fill a gap in outreach initiatives, which mostly educate people on legal matters, to address “softer” issues, such as how to overcome trauma, said Judith Strasser, a clinical psychologist and DED adviser.

The film will be available to any organization that wants to use it, Ms Strasser said, adding that she hoped it would spur similar art therapy projects elsewhere. The technique is not new to psychology, but is still little used in Cambodia, she said.

“This gave the people the possibility to confront their memories through different means,” Ms Strasser said, explaining that organizers had let the villagers film themselves and handed them single-use still cameras and art supplies. “It helped them somehow to get another distance to it.”

But getting to that end also required an emotional recounting and reliving of life under Democratic Kampuchea.

“While filming sometimes I didn’t need to try to cry, but the tears automatically ran out of my eyes,” said Dam Orn. “I hate that regime.”

 

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