Film Tells of Those Who Returned to the ‘Illusion’ of Khmer Rouge Cambodia

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The documentary “Looking Back on an Illusion” starts with a surprising scene for a film about Cambodia: six people walking through a park blanketed with snow.

It’s a reminder that the Khmer Rouge regime caused thousands of Cambodians to flee overseas.

Ong Thong Hoeung, left, and his wife Bounnie Ong-Chuor in a scene from “Looking back on an Illusion”.
Ong Thong Hoeung, left, and his wife Bounnie Ong-Chuor in a scene from “Looking back on an Illusion”.

– Film Review

The people in the opening scene are Swiss students on their way to interview Ong Thong Hoeung and his wife Bounnie Ong-Chuor, who were among the rare survivors of Khmer Rouge “reeducation camps” meant for Cambodians who had studied abroad.

The students’ visit to the couple’s home in Brussels in February 2013 was the first phase of a documentary film on their lives during the Maoist regime. The 73-minute film, first screened in Switzerland in April, will have its official international premiere at the Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh this weekend.

Directed by filmmaker Elena Hazanov and historian Claudio Recupero, the film’s unusual concept not only creates intimacy with its two Cambodian subjects, but also makes their story relevant to today’s youth as the Swiss students film and interview them.

When Mr. Recupero first suggested the idea of making a documentary about his life under the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Thong Hoeung refused. “He asked me, ‘Will I be worthy of it? Does my story, my personal journey, deserve a film?’” Mr. Recupero said in an interview.

But finally, he acceded. “It’s the ‘adventurer’ in me who had the last word,” Mr. Thong Hoeung said in an email. “I could not miss this experience, which will probably be the last one of my long life,” added the 70-year-old.

The film — in French with English subtitles — starts in Brussels and moves to Paris, where he and his wife lived and studied in the 1960s and 1970s, then ends in Cambodia.

The author of the 2003 book “I Believed in the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Thong Hoeung was among the Cambodian intellectuals who wished to put an end to corruption and abuses in the country, and thought the Khmer Rouge would do just that. He returned to the country in 1976 and was promptly interned in a prison camp, along with his wife.

In the film, the couple revisits locations of the camps where they were kept, and tours the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where Mr. Thong Hoeung worked in 1979 as he tried to determine the fate of some of his friends. The film also shows them at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, where Mr. Thong Hoeung testified in August 2012, and ends with a scene of him praying at a pagoda.

“I want the young generation to pay attention to all this,” he says onscreen. “We need to feel that the dead did not die for nothing.”

The documentary will be shown at the Institut Francais at 1 p.m. on Saturday and at the Bophana Center at 8 p.m. on Monday.

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