Lens Sees Old Trauma in a Contemporary Life

From the very start of Lida Chan’s documentary film “Red Wedding,” which had its premiere on Thursday in Phnom Penh, it is obvious that, although the Khmer Rouge ruled the country more than three decades ago, for Pen Sochan, this may have been yesterday.

Throughout the 58-minute film, she keeps repeating what happened to her over and over again —a symptom of trauma, according to psychologists—and keeps asking who issued the orders and why.

Ms Sochan has filed a complaint with the Khmer Rouge tribunal on the grounds of forced marriage. As Ms Sochan explains in the film, until now she had not told anyone that she had been married on a dark night in 1978 and later raped by her husband on Khmer Rouge orders.

“I want to cut the parts of my body my husband touched at the time…. I am dishonored,” she says in the film.

The documentary follows Ms Sochan in her daily routine in a rural corner of Pursat province, recreating at a slow and deliberate pace the context of lives that are aligned with the harvest cycle.

Ms Sochan, who remarried after the Khmer Rouge defeat of 1979, is a widow doing whatever she can to support her youngest son, who is the last of her six children by her second husband and who still lives at home, she says.

As the beautiful images shot by co-director and cameraman Guillaume Suon unfold on the screen, the viewers follow Ms Sochan as she harvests rice or collects fruits to sell at the market, visits with her two daughters who work in garment factories, or breaks into a fit of laughter with a friend.

And throughout the film Ms Sochan keeps on taking about the time she was forced to marry.

She and a woman friend also forced into a married by the Khmer Rouge recount how young men and women were called to a meeting and, as they were declared married, told to touch each other’s fingertips—not even a full handshake—to show they were married. Couples were given three nights to consummate their union, with Khmer Rouge spies listening to make sure they did.

Ms Sochan says she does not really remember her husband’s face as it was dark at the marriage meeting and they did not really look at each other during those nights. But she remembers vividly that, since they had not done their marital duties in the time allowed, they were sent for re-education: Her husband was told to rape her, which he did, tying her hands and tearing her clothes off her body, she says.

Ms Sochan was around 15 years old at the time. She managed to run away in the last weeks of the Pol Pot regime at the end of 1978, escaping capture by the Khmer Rouge. She later heard that her husband had been killed.

In answer to Ms Sochan’s question why the Pol Pot administration married people, the filmmakers have included in the documentary Khmer Rouge propaganda showing people “happily” working in fields and a voiceover explaining that the Khmer nation needed to grow in number.

In the film, Ms Sochan also asks former Khmer Rouge local officials, one of them a former district chief and now a commune chief, but none of them can give her an actual explanation.

Shooting the documentary took about six to eight months, with the crew of around five living off and on in Ms Sochan’s neighborhood in Bakan district’s Boeng Khnar commune, said Ms Chan, who has worked for the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center for a number of years.

The beauty of the images and quality of the film make it very well worth seeing. So much so that skeptics in the audience at the premiere were wondering whether some scenes had been staged.

Not so, Ms Chan said in an interview on Friday. While she and Ms Sochan had discussed the location, the scene in which she tells her two daughters about being married and raped in Khmer Rouge time was actually the first time she was telling them her secret, the 31-year-old filmmaker explained.

Since it is considered a dishonor for a woman not to be a virgin when she marries no matter the circumstances, to accept to tell her story so publicly took a great deal of courage, Ms Chan noted.

Some Khmer Rouge forced marriages turned out well and couples remain together to this day.

However, Ms Sochan is one of 664 men and women admitted as civil parties at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in relation to forced marriage, according to the attorney Silke Studzinsky, who is representing civil parties at the tribunal as part of Germany’s aid program.

Being a regular woman from the countryside, Ms Sochan is typical of civil parties, she said.

Since forced marriages and rapes were not included at first in the tribunal’s investigations, having such crimes admitted took some work, Ms Studzinsky said.

“It still remains to be determined whether forced marriage will be legally qualified either as rape as a listed crime under crimes against humanity or only as other inhuman acts,” she said.

 

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