Robert H. Lieberman’s ANGKOR AWAKENS: A PORTRAIT OF CAMBODIA asks difficult questions and provides answers that are as illuminating as they are troubling. His portrait of Cambodia is refracted through the genocide that was inflicted on it by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, a genocide that reduced the number of doctors in in a once prosperous and literate country to just 51, and eliminated veterinarians altogether. It’s a psychic trauma that is still present, and not just in the loss of infrastructure, or the PTSD, known locally as baksbat (broken courage) of the population who lived through it, but also in the generation born since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Through interviews with both generations, the level of internalized fear is evident even in the smiles that seem to be automatic to the Cambodian people. To say that it is disconcerting in its implications is to radically understate the situation. The sight of a boy talking calmly about what happened to his mother, who sits serenely by his side, and her family, suddenly breaking down into sobs is an image that will haunt you forever.
Lieberman starts by showing us scenes of the exquisite beauty of Cambodia, and narration from Cambodians extolling their county while also asking how genocide on such a scale could have happened. It was Cambodian on Cambodian, with no long-simmering hatreds fueling it, and yet, as one person opines, it would have ended with everyone dead. He notes that when wearing glasses becomes a death sentence, there is no other outcome possible. If more context is needed, there is the German-born American ambassador to Cambodia at the time, talking with regret in his voice to heavy that is weighs down both speak and listener as he draws the parallel to the Nazi Germany of his youth, and what he saw happening just before being recalled to Washington, American flag clutched in his hands to prevent it being desecrated if left behind.
The story of Cambodia is laid out with simplicity and clarity. From its heyday as the kingdom of Angkor, which dominated surrounding countries, to the colonial period that brought both French interference with the power structure and Prince Norodom Sihanouk, chosen by the French for his good looks and putatively pliable nature at the age of 17 to rule. The French were wrong, but it was the American war in Viet Nam that set the stage for the genocide. Lieberman reminds us that the Kent State protest, the one where students died at the hands of the National Guard, was organized against the secret bombing of Cambodia, and that the first article of impeachment against Nixon was that secret incursion. Using haunting shadow puppets to illustrate some points, even more haunting paintings from survivors for others,or the haunted expressions of the speakers, the story of a country imploding on itself is told with damning details that will raise hackles as the labyrinthine politics are laid bare, but should also serve as a cautionary tale all to relevant today for the consequences of state decisions made thousands of miles away that will affect a population for decades after the original reasons for those decisions have disappeared.
The interviewees are striking. A woman remembers having a gun to her head for having written a name on a piece of paper, a man that he was sentenced to death for having collapsed in exhaustion only to be spared by his executioner on the condition he disappear into the jungle. The first reporter to enter the capital, Phnom Penh, after the fall of Pol Pot, and hearing his footsteps echo in the streets of the metropolis that had been emptied of people. The most startling is Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge, explaining why he joined them, why he left, and how he views his country today. A better precis on the radical failures inherent on imposition of government by a foreign power there cannot be.
Yet, Lieberman refuses to let us leave the theater without hope, diluted though it is. ANGKOR AWAKENS has is a melancholy ode to the people it depicts. If the previous generation lives in a state of constant subsumed tension, the next, a bit cynical, is eager to rebuild, though the spiritual component of their lives may be lacking, a not insignificant detail. This is a stunningly powerful essay on politics and people that is gut-wrenching, indispensable viewing.