It took her 33 years to put pen to paper and write the screenplay that would change everything. However, for Khmer Rouge survivor Khauv Sotheary, producing a film about her mother’s experience of the brutal period instead of her own has allowed the 47-year-old professor to understand her family’s past even more profoundly.
Lost Loves is Cambodia’s first feature film about the Khmer Rouge in more than 20 years and coincides with a key hearing at the UN-backed war crimes court. This is the first time in 30 years that the regime has been discussed so much and so openly, and that, experts say, proves that Cambodia is truly on the road to reconciliation.
“We’ve grown up far from the story [of the regime] because so much time has passed, but the memory — of the pain, the starvation, the separation — is always there,” a soft-spoken Sotheary said from a cafe in Phnom Penh. “Even though we live in peace now and have food on the table, we have to keep this story alive. We have to communicate it.”
Lost Loves focuses on Sotheary’s mother, who lost seven members of her family — including her father, husband and four children — during the hardline communist regime of 1975 to 1979, which killed about 2 million people. The film premiered in 2010 at the Cambodian international film festival to a riveted audience and last week finally appeared in city cinemas. Critics have called it “groundbreaking” and “beautiful.”
Relying heavily on traditional Cambodian drama, the film depicts everyday life under the Khmer Rouge in striking but emotionally provocative ways. In one scene, Amara, stripped of her “capitalist” identity and clad in revolutionary, communist black, drags a fellow farmer to hospital as she suffers a miscarriage from overwork in the rice paddies, her blood staining the emerald grasses where they eat, sleep and toil.
“This is the only way to really bring the story to the people here,” said director Chhay Bora, 49, who lost two brothers at the hands of the regime and said that a documentary would have had a less profound effect.
“A docu-drama actually brings you to the experience by making you feel like you’re in it. You become emotionally engaged,” Bora said.
Sotheary, who survived the regime despite chronic malnutrition and a permanent state of despair, said she commends her mother for her “strength and resolve to survive what she did.”
“As a mother now, I don’t know if I’d have the same strength,” she added.
Bora and Sotheary — both university professors — chose Cambodia’s youth as the film’s target audience and have provided discounted tickets to schools and universities to encourage students to watch it. They aim to screen the film in provinces beyond the capital.
“Children need to see history with their eyes to understand what they read,” Bora said. “A film like this helps them understand their textbooks better.”
The filmmakers are aided, in part, by a recent movement to teach the history of the genocide to students and the public at Cambodia’s most famous torture prison, S-21, or Tuol Sleng. Organized by the country’s leading Khmer Rouge research group, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the biweekly lectures discuss the rise and fall of a government that considered education a disease of the elite and converted many of the country’s schools into prisons and warehouses.