[27 May 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I was born on the Cambodian New Year in a refugee camp,” narrates Socheata Poeuv. “But my parents never told me much more than that, only that I was the lucky one.” Her mother and father, along with her sisters and brother Scott, had survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, had escaped Cambodia and moved to Texas while she was still an infant. Socheata’s childhood memories were shaped by her parents’ efforts to give “us a normal American life”: family photos show the children celebrating birthdays and smiling in amusement park rides.
She felt immersed in U.S. culture and expectations, Socheata says at the start of her superb documentary, New Year Baby (the 56- minute version airing on PBS’ Independent Lens on 27 May). But still, her parents “never left Cambodia. My mom still cooks on the kitchen floor my dad trims trees with a meat cleaver.” Footage shows both parents chopping at meat or branches, their faces set in something like grim determination. Such focus on forgetting affected Socheata, who knew something had happened but didn’t know exactly what. She gets a peek into that secret past on Christmas in 2002, a holiday that her Buddhist parents celebrate annually, she explains, as a dancing toy Santa looms in the foreground of a shot with Nin and Houng blurry in the background, smiling and immobile on their living room couch. This sweet and silly image gives way to the history now revealed: her sisters Mala and Leakhena are not actually her sisters, Scott is a half-brother, and her mother had a husband before Nin.
Shaken and intrigued, Socheata—who graduated from Smith College and studied at Oxford before working in New York City at a news station—embarks on her autobiographical film project when her parents invite her and Scott to go back to Cambodia to meet relatives (Mala and Leakhena decide not to go, as they associate the trauma of the labor camps with the death of their mother, Houng’s sister; Mala explains, “Sometimes we could find bodies that were executed the night before, they didn’t try to hide anything”). Still Socheata’s sisters/cousins help her sort through some of her own childhood memories, mostly shaped into nightmares populated by figures in black, menacing her in closets and shadows. As she remembers her dreams, simple-seeming, beautifully rendered animation by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger illustrates her youthful fears. As her parents dodged her questions, she says, the figures appeared but “I could never see the faces.”
Traveling to Cambodia—with a mini-DFV and operator Jason Bolling—Socheata hopes to find faces to fill in the gaps in her family’s story. In part, that tragic story is, as her mother says, “not special.” From 1975 to 1979, when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, Pol Pot’s government condemned millions of citizens to execution, starvation, and death by disease. “The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a classless society,” reports Socheata, and “forced everyone into labor camps.” They also renamed the Cambodian New Year “Liberation Day,” she says, underlining once again the thematic connections between her own story and her nation’s. Like other recent films following the returns of filmmakers raised in the States to war-torn homelands (see also, Nice Bomb and Motherland Afghanistan), New Year Baby makes smart use of personal memories to illuminate a broader history. The trauma of the camps haunts Socheata. “Once when I asked my dad what was the worst part of living under the Khmer Rouge,” Socheata says, “he said it was the silence. I wanted to break that silence and confront some of the people who made up my childhood nightmares. But I was terrified.”
At the same time, Socheata wonders about her parents, whom she describes as a “mismatched couple,” under shots of them sitting stiffly on their couch, leaning away from one another while avoiding her questions about how they got together. What does her mother like about Pa? “I like about Pa when he’s not talking,” Houng says, smiling tightly. “He’s a good listener.” Nin, for his part, sums up their marriage rationally: “I like her. If I didn’t like her, why would I take her?” Her mother notes that Nin remains concerned about their mixed race marriage: “He still consider dark bad,” says Houng , “He hates dark.”
Socheata is surprised to hear of this. And her curiosity only intensifies when they arrive in Cambodia, and her parents remain reluctant to talk about the labor camps or the losses of family members and friends. While Nin’s explanation of his survival is quietly abstract (”“You have to think ahead. Don’t be too daring, don’t be too scared. Take the middle road”), Houng agrees to take Socheata to the camp where she was imprisoned: “We only stayed three minutes,” laments Socheata, before “my mom put up a brick wall just like she had my entire life.” Her own investigation includes a trip to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the camera observes her observing: she looks inside a reconstructed cell and the scene cuts to matching archival footage, a similar room and then a fallen figure inside. As she looks at a collection of skulls and then her own figure is reflected in a wall of photos—corpses, injuries, starving children—she ponders the fact that “No member of the Khmer Rouge has been brought to trial. The Prime Minister, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander, says it is time for Cambodians to dig a hole to bury the past.” (Since the film was made, legal proceedings against some officials have been scheduled, though illness and machinations continue to postpone court dates.)
Socheata means to dig, but not in the name of forgetting. Instead, she travels with her father to visit her aunt’s makeshift grave (she was buried near the latrine in the camp where she starved to death) and then to meet with a former Khmer Rouge cadre. As the camera watches her father’s responses, Socheata asks Son Soeum, once the district chief who oversaw her parents’ camp and now a farmer, if he feels regret for the dead (nearly two million died in four years, one quarter of the population). Though he professes to have none, when Nin wipes his eyes as Son Soeum recalls forcing couples to marry, the camera cuts to the former cadre to show his own eyes watering. And as Socheata wonders about her motives for the trip—to learn about her parents or alleviate her own guilt for being “the lucky one,” the camera pauses to show Son Soeum squatting in the background, watching his visitors. Just then, a young boy comes into frame and squats in the foreground, looking directly into the lens, smiling and inquisitive, full of a child’s energy and optimisms.
New Year Baby is punctuated throughout by such provocative, assured images, asking viewers to consider their own relationships to this devastating history and the future that stretches before us. While the film does not probe the U.S. part in that history—including secret and not so secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos—it does reveal, quietly and insistently, the ongoing effects of war trauma. While it is wretchedly familiar in its broad outlines, the story here is both devastating and nuanced, personal and resonant.