The concept of having one of the worst genocides in history portrayed with roughly carved clay figures in dioramas is a curiously effective metaphor for the dehumanizing experience which engulfed and convulsed Cambodia in the years of Pol Pot’s regime. Between 1975 and 1979 over a million people either died of starvation and overwork or were brutally tortured and killed. How such a horrific nightmare could occur without international intervention is because Pol Pot, who had seized power from the collapsed legitimate government for his Khmer Rouge regime had cut off all communication with the outside world. He closed all embassies and expelled all foreigners. He shut down newspapers, radio and television stations, curtailed mail and telephone use. Money was forbidden, schools and hospitals closed, businesses were shut down. The opening scene shows hands carving a primitive figure and painting on the face, hair and clothes. There is a voice over narration which introduces the characters and describes their circumstances in a wistful tone and poetic words. This is a memory of an idyllic childhood in the life of the young Rithy Panh with his family in their village. So the shock of the brutal events which wipe out all vestiges of this life and so many of the people and turn the entire country into a living hell leaves us, as it did them, totally incredulous. There was no warning of what was to come. One unpopular regime was ousted and the new one was imagined to be better. These were not invaders from another country. This was an ideological madman trying to re-engineer his country to fit his vision using whatever tactics were necessary to achieve the goal. Those who chose not to participate were expendable and killed.
His mission was to build a new society based on an “agrarian utopia”, a radical form of Communism which he had witnessed in Mao’s China. Achieving this goal, in his view, meant that the entire populace should consist of peasant farmers. Thus, no need for cities which were full of potential subversives, ie. students and academics, artists, professionals, religious people and anyone who had the slightest bent toward anything Western. This rationale involved evacuating all of the people in cities to the countryside to be peasant farmers. They were forced to leave everything behind and herded on long marches where many died of exhaustion and starvation. Once they got to wherever they had to go they were barely fed and forced to work impossibly long hours. To the Khmer soldiers starvation was punishment for the weak and it saved bullets.
There is not a person who was alive during that period who does not have a horrific story of their own or some members of their family. It was only after the fall of Pol Pot that the full scale of the horrific Khmer Rouge regime was revealed and when the notorious “killing fields” were discovered - mass graves of staggering proportions. There is included some archival footage, often badly burned or torn and difficult to discern. This too seems like an apt metaphor for a period almost too painful to recall.
And yet the film is not an angry indictment. It is, like the Cambodian people with whom I talked when I visited in 2001, a memory that needs to be remembered so as not to be repeated. They are eager to tell their stories of that time but not for manipulative reasons. There is a gentle innocence as if they are so amazed that they survived that they have only room for radical gratitude. Perhaps it is the Buddhism. They are a beautiful people with an ancient and glorious culture and this film does them justice.
Review by Belle McIntyre