Filmmaker Prof. Robert Lieberman ’65, physics, wanted to give his audience an unprecedented, in-depth look at Cambodia in latest documentary: Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia.
“There are a number of films about Cambodia, but there are none with this depth,” Lieberman said.
The film chronicles the history of Cambodia, including the country’s brutal genocide of three million Cambodians at the hands of the ruling Khmer Rouge. Lieberman added that the film also focuses on modern day Cambodia, in order to investigate how the country has recovered from its brutal past.
Lieberman said the genocide is part of the reason he became interested in Cambodia. As the son of Jewish parents who escaped from Vienna during the Holocaust, Lieberman said he has always been fascinated with genocides and the lasting harm they wreck on nations. However, he stresses that genocide is not the focus of his film. Rather, Angkor Awakens is “a portrait of a country.”
Lieberman interviewed many over the course of his filmmaking process, but he said one of his most exciting talks was with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since the end of the genocide.
“We [Hun Sen and I] had a two hour interview, eyeball to eyeball,” Lieberman said, adding that instead of following the pre-scripted questions and answers, the Prime Minister allowed Lieberman to “fire away” with his own questions.
Lieberman said his interest in Southeast Asia stems from working in the U.S. embassy in both Burma and Cambodia.
“I’ve been working for the US embassy in both Burma and Cambodia,” Lieberman said. “I’ve been around a lot in Southeast Asia…I’ve had Fulbrights [grants] where I’ve been teaching in the Philippines.”
As a former Cornell student and current professor, Lieberman has worked with many collaborators, such as co-producer Deborah Hoard and editor David Kossack, from the Ithaca area to construct Angkor Awakens. The filmmaking process also was based out of Photosynthesis Productions in Ithaca; two Cornell faculty members are featured in the film.
Rose Pinnisi ’17 also played a pivotal role in the documentary by transcribing, editing and contacting databases for rights to film.
“I think it’s a country in a very unique place politically, culturally and emotionally, and I’m excited to share that knowledge with people in this country who might not know about it,” Pinnisi said, speaking about Cambodia.
Pinnisi added that she enjoyed “translating ideas into an understandable and emotionally impactful experience for an audience.”
Angkor Awakens will be Lieberman’s sixth film. He has already worked on pieces like Faces in a Famine, which chronicles a famine in Ethiopia, and They Call it Myanmar, which played in major theatres and has earned three and a half stars on Netflix.
While Angkor Awakens will educate viewers on Cambodia, Lieberman emphasized that he also wants to entertain his audience.
“A film is successful is we take you for a ride, if we grab you by the lapels and don’t let go, and you’re fully engaged,” he said.
Tickets are now available and the film will premiere in Cornell Cinema on Oct. 3.