By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I wondered how the film could go on from the killing. And after watching awhile, I wondered how the country of Cambodia could go on from the killing.
Robert H. Lieberman, a film director, novelist, and student of the human condition, teaches physics at Cornell University. He opens his documentary “Angkor Awakens: A Portrait Of Cambodia” without any of the famous grisly Khmer Rouge massacre photos or film clips. The stacks of skulls, the scattered skeletons, the bodies, flesh still on, lying in pits, come later. No, Lieberman begins his film with a long shot of a long stairway. A stairway running all the way up one side of a mountain.
And through the horrors, through confusion and resignation, that stairway stuck with me. Cambodia’s past, a long climb to great heights. Cambodia’s shame, a long climb by murderous lunatics who killed, depending on sources, 1.5 million people to twice that number. Cambodia’s future, for everyone agrees it must have some future, is a long climb to some unclear destiny.
What can Cambodia become? How to tell feasible from infeasible? What should Cambodia become? How to tell the right path from the wrong? Is democracy the only solution? Lieberman starts with the horrors, sensibly enough, not in terms of horror, but in terms of a game plan. The genocide of Cambodians by Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge massacre. It’s what many Americans know about the country through movies ranging from “The Killing Fields” to “Swimming to Cambodia,” and the lesser-known “Enemies of the People,” featuring surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership.
The killing also sits heavy in the minds and souls of many survivors and their families. Many don’t want to talk about it, especially the ones who went through it. They’re ashamed of losing their families. They’re ashamed of what they had to do to survive, which sometimes included killing their own.
The Cambodian concept of “baksbat” (translating as “broken courage”) resembles Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but includes the notion of submission, giving up on life, living with one’s feelings without expressing them, and the loss of any idea of togetherness. This, Cambodian mental health experts say, forms a way of life for many survivors of the genocide.
And a people, not to mention a nation, must have a concept of togetherness to go on. Cambodia, some of the talking heads suggest in the film, can survive, because “baksbat” keeps it in survival mode. But it cannot truly thrive. It cannot assemble a forward-thinking and feeling version of itself.
Not everyone agrees on what way “forward” lies. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had many ideas. He’s controversial, and he defends police action against Cambodian protesters by saying that Americans don’t blame Obama for police actions in America. He may have a point.
But younger people ask questions now. And older people sometimes answer. People take to the streets, and danger, and sometimes death, results. However, says a young woman, she’s excited by the energy on the streets, energy in the air. Energy, to take the country and the people, somewhere new. Up a new staircase to a new peak.
“Angkor Awakens: A Portrait Of Cambodia” opens Friday, May 26, at Seattle’s Seven Gables Theatre, 911 N.E. 50th Street. Director Robert H. Lieberman will take questions at showings on Friday and Saturday nights. For prices, showtimes, and more information, visit www.landmarktheatres.com/seattle/seven-gables-theatre.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.