Courtesy of PhotoSynthesis Productions

October 5, 2016

A Story of Selective Remembrance: Angkor Awakens at Cornell Cinema

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Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia (directed by Prof. Robert Lieberman, physics, M.S. ’65 ) starts with a rush of motion, the camera speeding up a flight of stairs with increasing momentum, panning out to reveal lush hills, stone steps and a vibrant earth that stretches on and on. Ambient music fills the theatre; the screen slips to a red backdrop, with the shadows of traditional dancers gliding about; a voiceover extracted from one of the many interviews speaks, introducing us to an eighty-minute documentary probe into Cambodia.

Following independence from France, the Cambodia of the ’60s and ’70s was sucked into the Cold War when its neighbor Vietnam fell into civil chaos, despite efforts to stay neutral. What eventually emerged from the din and struggle for national survival was the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, an extremist Communist group led by Pol Pot, which proceeded to commit one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century, claiming up to two million lives. Angkor Awakens is a poignant, revealing documentary in how it chooses to look at this highly volatile and violent time. At its heart, it tries very much to marry the violence of Khmer Rouge reign with the friendly image of Cambodia — to understand how such terrifying events could have occurred and to understand the vestigial but very real effects of them today.

This dichotomy is not really a clean cut — and the film shows that there isn’t really a dichotomy at all, no matter how we might think of it. The past events and the present are intertwined in terribly complicated ways. The trauma and fear of the past lingers on in the silence of the older generations and the subconscious fears and instincts people still hold on now, from the mindset that being too educated means danger, from the memory of an eradicated intellectual class, to the idea that young children might still be spies. It is this silence and fear, we find, that brings an illusion of a dichotomy — an illusion broken by the interviews and historical context given in Angkor Wat.

The selected interviews of the film are particularly informative and at times, jarring. The recounted experiences of child soldiers, stolen fathers and scrambles for survival sit in sharp contrast to the images of modern-day Cambodia. Yet as the film continues, we are shown the increasing number of ways the historical legacy of the Khmer Rouge legacy continues today and affects the current state of Cambodia as a developing nation, in the nature of the Cambodian People’s Party’s clear dominance, the system of constitutional monarchy in Cambodia and commonly accepted lifestyle of simply living for the day’s wages rather than a future. At times, it seems that the historical trauma of the Khmer Rouge is irreversible, forcing a sort of selective memory to be passed on because of the silence born of wounds — a dangerous thing for the simple fact that we learn from the past.

Yet, as the documentary points out, Cambodia is not in a stasis of any sort. In the interviews there is distress from the past but also very clearly a kind of hope, both in the older generation that experienced the terrors and in the younger generation (which makes up a staggering proportion of the population) that is fighting to learn, understand and bring change.

Angkor Awakens peels back the modern westernized rhetoric of the story and does an amazing job in piecing together an often ignored narrative from the many voices and accounts of the Cambodian people who experienced, currently experience and will continue to experience the effects of the 20th century’s chaos. What’s incredible, as the film shows, is how Cambodia is slowly managing to recover from the complete overturning of its culture—that despite the violence, people are able to hope for a better future even through the worst of times.

In the United States, Cambodia isn’t generally a topic of everyday matter. If it does come up in conversation, it’s often talk about Cambodia as a developing nation; Cambodia as a place needing educational funding; Cambodia as a place of friendly locals who welcome tourists. What we don’t realize is how much all this is a product of recent history—specifically in context of the Cold War—and how the circumstances that created Cambodia makes it an intellectually and politically striking state today. It should be well-noted that the United States held a significant role in the formative events that spurred the Khmer Rouge to power and that Cambodia was a major point of political contention. Our own selective remembrance, the lack of Cambodia in our history classes is also a testament to the problems of trauma and memory that Cambodia faces today. The themes of forgotten memory, political suppression and generational differences, while unique to Cambodia by the situation here, are things that must be carefully considered by everyone — the gripping narratives, fantastically diverse perspectives and central themes discussed in Angkor Wat create an excellent, informative and compelling documentary for anyone interested in seeing how a people and world change over time, and in seeing the power of hope that humanity can wield.

Catherine Hwang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at 

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