Ellen Bruno's beautiful film conveys a deep sense of sadness, and at the same time a somber respect for the Cambodian people. There is no excitement to the violence, no voyeurism in talking of death. Rather, Buddhist understandings of suffering and impermanence bestow a dignity on the lives of the Khmer she interviews and films.
It is important to know first of all what Bruno's film is not. It is not a political analysis of recent Khmer history that tells you who is who, or what happened when. If this is what you are looking for, see Jim Gerrand's two-part movie, The Prince and the Prophecy and Cambodia/Kampuchea.
Bruno's film is something very different. If Gerrand's film is prose, documentation, "facts"; Bruno's film is poetry, artistry, emotion. The film is less about what happened than about the process by which Cambodians are surviving what happened and rebuilding their lives. She does not try to blame anyone. Perhaps it is in this sense that the film is most in the spirit of Buddhism--which it tries to capture and emulate.
Through the film's patient pace, the sequencing of tragic images and scenes from daily life, and interspersed comments from Buddhist texts, Bruno gives us the stories of individual Khmer who have lived with unbearable suffering. Khmer are, the narrator points out, a people in passage. We hear the story of a man who comes back to the city to search for his wife and children, but finds strangers in his house. As he turns to leave he sees a message scrawled in charcoal that reads, "Husband, I am alive. Find me living in the old factory near the market." In another vignette, a woman tells of a dream in which her dead brother Sokhan comes to her and asks to be born again. Shortly thereafter a baby is born into the family, and he looks like Sokhan. A man with only one leg walks slowly down a hallway, the sound of the wooden crutches echoes off the hospital walls.
People go on with their lives and yet every act, every thought, every step is marred by the jagged memories of death and destruction. The film notes a new innocence found only in children, and as the camera pans the faces of adults watching children at play, the narrator says:
We live motions of life, wear masks of happiness,
But we live in the shadow of memory. We look back
to a time when we were together as family, when we trusted
our neighbor, when we spoke without fear.
But with each good memory comes the pain of its loss. Bruno presents Khmer living with these lasting scars.
The film, on the one hand, is of a particular time. The shots of Cambodia in 1989 are of a Cambodia that no longer exists. The multitudes of bicycles have been replaced by motorbikes and cars. The loudspeakers which daily gave martial music and communist rhetoric on the glories of brotherhood with Vietnam have long since fallen silent. The soldiers with AK-47s are not as common a sight in Phnom Penh anymore, nor in much of the countryside away from the northern and western borders. The short introductory statement at the beginning of the film is similarly dated; the 1993 elections have changed the faces in the government, and the international backers have shifted.
But in a very real sense the film is not outdated. At least half of the Khmer Rouge are still in the jungle (though just this month, in September 1996, some 3,000-4,000 have supposedly agreed to end their struggle). Life for many Khmer still involves an overwhelming sense of loss. They still search the faces of their countrymen in crowds, waiting, hoping that someday they might spot their missing loved one. Vast areas of the country are still mined. Adult Khmer live with a legacy of fear, their sense of confidence and certainty in institutions, in people, in their culture, in the regularness of daily life itself, is shaken.
The theme of the movie is that renewal is not only possible, but characteristic of the cycle of life. The movie ends with a rainstorm, the return of the monsoon rejuvenates the parched landscape--where the seedlings had nearly died in the heat. The power of the past to haunt is certain, but the film asserts the possibility of compassion and renewal.