More than 1,000 hours of rare film footage produced during the Khmer Rouge regime could yield important evidence for use in a tribunal of cadre leaders, a researcher said.
But it is unclear whether Cambodians will ever see the films, which are being held by a private French television station under a contract for the film’s restoration.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has been trying to obtain the footage, or at least a copy of it, for three years, but his requests to see it have been denied.
“To me, any piece of Khmer Rouge documents can serve as a source of evidence of what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime. It should be home. It should be assembled so we know what is there, so we know what has happened,” he said.
The chairman of System TV, the French station that has the film, has said Cambodians must buy the film if they want it returned, Youk Chhang said, confirming a Reuters report.
The official responsible for sending the films to France, former Minister of Culture Nouth Narang, has avoided answering any questions about the film or even responding to Youk Chhang’s many requests for information.
Youk Chhang said he has tried over the last two years to contact Nouth Narang to ask about the film. He said he also wants to see a copy of the contract to know if it allows him to make a copy of the films for educational purposes.
“I tried through different channels, but there is no response,” he said.
It’s not even known if the films were actually sold to the French station or if they will be returned at some point after they have been restored. Youk Chhang suspects that they were sold.
“Here they sell children, why not film? I’m not surprised,” he said.
Nouth Narang, now a National Assembly member, could not be reached for comment.
Segments of the films have appeared in contemporary documentaries about the Khmer Rouge, leading Youk Chhang to conclude that the restoration work has been completed and that the films are now being held by the French station as a one-of-a-kind archive of Khmer Rouge images, probably for sale.
The stonewalling has left Youk Chhang frustrated in his bid to assemble a multimedia database on the Khmer Rouge period. The Documentation Center plans to open a memorial and archive center near Tuol Sleng Museum within a few years to allow the public access to some 600,000 documents that have been collected on the Pol Pot era.
The films were first discovered by the Documentation Center in 1998, when Youk Chhang uncovered records of 1,000 hours of black-and-white footage while researching the Khmer Rouge. He sent a letter to Nouth Narang asking to see the film, but by the time he was granted permission, his staff found only an empty room at the Ministry of Culture where the films had been stored.
The film was considered lost until early 1999 when a Reuters reporter acting on a tip questioned the chairman of System TV about the missing film, who confirmed it was at the station. Chairman Daniel Renouf told Reuters the film contained images of Khmer Rouge propaganda of rice fields and people at work; it also showed a reenactment of a battle against the Vietnamese.
Renouf also told Reuters that the films would not be returned unless the Cambodian government paid to get it back.
Youk Chhang said he spoke to the French Embassy but officials there told him that they could not interfere since the film is being held by a private interest. He also called System TV and spoke to Renouf, who denied even having the film.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said members of his staff flew to France to view the film two years ago. He said there may be room for an arrangement to view the films without having to take legal action, but it depends on the contract that Nouth Narang signed. Khieu Kanharith added that he has not seen the contract himself.
“I am too busy,” he said, adding that the question of the films is not his to settle.
Som Sokun, the director of the Cinema and Diffusion Cultural Department in the Ministry of Culture, presented a copy of the agreement last week. The one-page document written in French does not mention any amount of money nor does it state when the films would be returned to Cambodia.
The contract does say that the television station must get approval from the Cambodian Ministry of Culture before making a copy of any part of the films. The contract was signed by Nouth Narang and Daniel Renouf.
The only person who offered any help to Youk Chhang was Kong Ouk, the secretary to Minister of Cabinet Sok An. Kong Ouk has told Youk Chhang as recently as two weeks ago that he was searching for a copy of the film contract to see if it would allow for making a copy.
But when he was contacted by reporter, Kong Ouk hung up the phone when asked about the missing films. The second time he was called, Kong Ouk said he was no longer working on the issue and that another adviser, named Simy Soth, was the person to speak to about the films. Kong Ouk also said he had not seen a copy of the contract.
Youk Chhang says politics may have interfered to prevent anyone from getting a copy of the film to Cambodia.
“One side says…the King [Norodom Sihanouk] is on the film. Another side says that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is in the film. I don’t care. I just want the film,” he said.