The Khmer Rouge’s mass murders were rare for a genocide in this respect: the killers and the victims shared an ethnicity, the murders a brutal move in the political game that developed after the country took desperate measures to protect itself from the Vietnam War raging along and inside its border. From 1975 to 1979 power- hungry ideologues emptied Cambodia’s cities, eager to turn citizens into peasants and the country into an ownerless dreamworld, devoid of intellectuals and expertise. The effort was doomed, but the attempt to carry it out led to the killing of some 2.2 million, many of whom turned against each other in an attempt to survive. Director Robert H. Lieberman’s documentary Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia is a superbly balanced picture of Cambodia then and now, a nation in a sort of stupor of post traumatic stress syndrome, denial and survivor’s’ guilt.
Lieberman is also a novelist, and his storytelling skills are evident as he pieces together input from historians, survivors and their children and grandchildren, and even the country’s current strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen. It’s a grim portrait of a society still picking up the pieces of its self-immolation. But the young people, from school age to young adults, are privy to the goings-on in the wider world, in part through social media, and expect more. They want to know what happened and they want to understand, but they seem to believe that it’s a different world. Thanks to them, it may be.
Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia
Directed by Robert H. Lieberman
Opens May 5, Landmark Sunshine
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 4, 2017