Cambodia faces its recent history once more on the silver screen after 1984 make “Killing Fields”. Directed by Angelina Jolie, with French-Khmer producer and director Rithy Panh in production, the movie shot for Neflix is the a Khmer drama screenplay of A. Jolie’s close friend, human rights activist Loung Ung’s autobiography where she tells her real life story
The movie begins with Khmer Rouges’ occupying and taking over Phnom Penh in 1975 after their lengthy civil war. Their being banished from their homes with their entire family as result of Angkar Party’s (Khmer Rouge) evacuating all cities and sending the entire population to working camps in the rural area is narrated from the point of Ung who was five years old at the time. Ung’s faint memories have been beautifully reflected on screen with visual twists. Loung Ung’s memory becomes stronger and images become clearer as she grows in camps. Their being forced to work at camps, young and old, their struggle for survival in an environment of oppression, violence and threat under the shadow of weapons has been portrayed with long scenes. While often reminiscing about their prosperous life in Phom Penh with flashbacks and dreaming about her old, happy life, young Ung also struggles with starvation and other difficulties in camps.
Symbols of Khmer culture have also been given place in the movie. Considered sacred in Buddhism, the Lotus flower used on the movie poster has been used in scenes as a metaphor. In some scenes the red lotus, a symbol of love and compassion, appears infinitely fresh as to represent keeping hope alive while in other scenes it appears pale in different colors and with different meanings. One of the most impressive scenes was Ung’s sudden daydream of the traditional Apsara dance performed with elegant and aesthetic moves in a play where flags are waved and anthems are sang, which was performed to make propaganda to children in the camp. It was a scene that successfully summarizes the Mao wannabe dictator Pol Pot’s efforts to try to suddenly destroy Khmer society’s traditions that have been preserved for hundreds of years until today, and replace it with brute agitation.. The monkey-god Hanuman which is considered sacred in Brahmanism and Buddhism has also been used as a symbol but I couldn’t figure out the context because I don’t have comprehensive knowledge about Hindu mythology.
The movie was shot in Battambang, the hometown of Jolie’s son, Maddox, in Siem Reap. The movie premiere was held in Siem Reap, then it made debut in Phnom Penh and Battambang. The premiere in Battambang was public. I couldn’t miss that chance, I left Siem Reap and arrived at Battambag to attend the premiere after a 4 hour motorcycle ride. More than three thousand people had packed the open air theatre. Though Angeline Jolie didn’t attend the movie but sent a video message, Loung Ung was there. The crowd that made quite some noise before the movie had began met the historical confrontation with silence as soon as it began. Their recent history which even their parents refrained from telling was before them on the silver screen.
As far as I have observed the audience, the movie has matched the local wording well. Some gestures and dialogs that only Cambodians can understand and laugh have been portrayed in some scenes. Another observation I made is that the audience became mesmerized to the point of almost clapping during scenes where Khmer Rouge agitators did Anti-Vietnam propaganda. And this indicates that Khmer society still perceives Vietnam a greater enemy than Pol Pot.
Frankly, I expected to come across the anti-communist wording of an American from the cold war era in this movie. Angelina Jolie’s realistic approach surprised me. Either in the beginning or the end of the movie Nixon policies were criticized and the fact that 250.000 Cambodians have died in American air attacks wasn’t ignored.. I haven’t seen any Hollywood-style anti-propaganda that purposes a political goal aside from Lenin, Stalin posters used as scenery in Khmer Rouge camps. Another pleasing thing is that stories told by amateur guides that involve exaggerated themes such as pregnant women and babies’ being killed by Khmer Rouge hasn’t been given any place. Additionally, the Vietnam army that protected Cambodians who were running away from the tyranny of Khmer Rouge at the cost of their lives has also been regarded in the movie.
Angelina Jolie explains that Cambodia is an awakening for her. Who knows, perhaps finding out the fact that her country, America used Khmer Rouge as a pawn against the Soviets and Vietnam during cold war era, that Pentagon allocates 15 million dollars to Pol Pot annually, that British special forces trained Khmer Rouges on land mines and that the United Nations, of which she is a peace envoy, has protected Khmer Rouge’s seat in the parliament until 1991 had influence in this awakening.Translated by : Ünzile Figen Manisalı