“Certainly now I have more distance, but it’s curious: with age we feel pain [all the] more. For many years I hoped that the pain would lessen, but it’s not true at all. This may be too simple, but I have the idea that I died once already, under the Khmer Rouge, and then was reborn, but with the pain, the death inside me. I have to accept it, this pain, and live with it until the end of my life — my second life.”
“Sometimes I’d like her to sell him.” Aya’s mother is arguing with her. Now 20 years old, Aya has recently returned to Battambang province in Cambodia after some four years away, with a baby whom her mother resents because, she says, “I have to feed him.”
The camera cuts from one face to another as The Storm Makers begins, close frames underlining their upset with one another, and also their interactions with their interviewer. As they speak, their complicated history becomes painfully evident. Disabled and unable to support themselves, Aya’s mother and father were several years before approached by a recruiter promising that Aya would be able to work in Malaysia and send home good money, that she’d be safe and independent, that all of their lives would all be better. Aya would be one of the “half a million Cambodians sex trafficked Thailand Laos and Malaysia,” as noted in an opening title card.
It’s remarkable, certainly, that Aya not only survived her abusive “employer”, but also several months in a Malaysian prison (her boss confiscated her passport so that she was unable to prove her identity following her escape). But The Storm Makers — which screened at AFI Docs in June and will premiere on PBS’ POV series 31 August — explores the struggle of her homecoming, in revelatory, frequently breathtaking images. These include striking portraits of faces and figures, anguished and resilient, as well as muddy landscapes and destitute interiors.
Such images, both beautiful and painful, speak to the closeness filmmaker Guillaume Suon developed with his subjects, spending some three years recording Aya and her family. The quarrel in the first scene is framed by Suon’s silent off-screen presence, complicating the women’s self-performances as they speak to each other and also to him. “I’m ashamed of you,” the mother tells Aya. “Maybe you should have stayed with your boss.” Aya’s voice rises as she comes back, “You prefer money to your children. Did you ever love me?”
As their back-and-forth is interrupted by occasional shots of the baby, so tiny rocking in a hammock, it’s clear that each feels her own guilt and resentment and also that he embodies these feelings. When Aya’s mother says — in frustration, in desolation — that she wishes the boy might be sold, you’re aware that she too is traumatized by unspeakable loss. The mother appears on crutches, making her way with Aya to a village official who advises them not to file a complaint, that they have no legal standing: “If we file a complaint, they will just say ‘I’m sorry.'” Aya’s mother looks down, “It’s my fault, it’s not worth filing a complaint.” Aya explains, for the film as much as for her mother, “I would like to file complaint, but we can’t afford it.”
Trauma shapes their lives, trauma they’re not at all equipped to understand or resolve. In its focus on trauma’s lasting effects, The Storm Makers is of a piece with producer Rithy Panh’s other work, including the documentaries The Missing Picture and S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine. Like Panh’s films, The Storm Makers underscores how the war and genocide produce layers of legacy, not least the crushing poverty that over-determines an unthinkable lack of options.
Suon’s documentary elucidates this trauma, its title a reference to the traffickers — “Mey Kechol,” or “Storm Makers” — who simultaneously exploit and inflict it. If Aya and her parents offer one sort of self-performance, trying to make sense of chaos, struggling to communicate with each other and for Suon, the film offers another self-performance by Pou Houy. A trafficker who exhibits little concern for the damage he does, Pou Houy explains how he recruits slaves, the tricks and strategies he uses to deceive families and make his profits. He tells Suon, “I target the poorest ones. These people are easy to lure and recruit. Most can’t read, they have nothing to lose. Even the factories don’t want them, nobody wants them but me.” He brings the camera along with him as he speaks to new recruits and their parents. “If you want to go,” he tells one youngster on a city street, “Since I know you, you can go quickly. You’ll earn a good salary.”
Pou Houy’s openness is disturbing and tragically unsurprising, He tells himself — or the camera, at least — that he’s righteous. Bringing the camera crew with him to church, Pou Houy declares, “Since I have never hurt anyone, Lord Jesus Christ will take me with him to heaven.” Another sort of openness, also devastating, closes the film, when Aya, who tries so hard to stand up to her mother’s upset, confesses that like her mother, she resents the trauma her baby calls to mind. “Sometimes I strangle him until he suffocates,” she says, “And I release him just before he dies.” You can’t imagine how she lives with this.