A primer on the history of a country whose name conjures memories of 1970s horror, Robert H. Lieberman’s Angkor Awakens is dominated by questions of how the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities came to pass and how present-day Cambodia might move beyond the trauma that regime inflicted. Ultimately optimistic but never Pollyannaish, the straightforward doc will play best in educational settings and on video, serving as a fine (if dry) entry point for Americans curious about the region’s past.
Those drawn in by the evocative title might expect a larger focus on ancient Angkor, once the world’s largest city, capital of a vast empire for many centuries. But that part of the story is quickly summarized here, and while an introduction offers some nice tourism-friendly scenic shots, there’s no discussion of the architecture the ancient Khmer Empire left behind.
More attention is paid to the mid-20th century rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, who was installed by French colonialists when he was a teen, but who proved less easy to manipulate than they expected. Sihanouk pulled away from French rule and was beloved by his people, overseeing what the doc describes as a golden age of artistic and intellectual growth. But Sihanouk found it impossible to keep his country unaffected by the nearby Vietnam War. The film is not shy about describing America’s part in the horrors to come — a clip from last year’s Democratic primary debates shows Bernie Sanders recapping the career of Henry Kissinger, “one of the most destructive” people in history — but it also presents Sihanouk as partly to blame, embracing the Khmer Rouge when he was removed from power.
Lieberman interviews many historians and journalists about what happened next, but his most valuable talking heads are those remembering things firsthand. We hear from several people who narrowly escaped execution as the Khmer Rouge began their genocide. Trying to create a classless society overnight by evacuating cities and making everyone peasants in the fields, the regime saw intellectuals as their enemies. Any sign of education was reason for someone to be executed — even wearing glasses.
Showing how Pol Pot’s reign ended isn’t as big a priority here as trying to describe the psychological aftereffects of what he did. While many survivors refuse to discuss what they endured during those years, we’re told that their entire approach to the world is still dominated by the experience. While a Westerner would call it PTSD, many of these Cambodians reject the label — but they will admit to having what locals call “broken courage,” a kind of moral helplessness.
Lieberman’s doc suggests that this helplessness will have to be overcome by the country’s large percentage of young citizens, who are beginning to voice their dissatisfaction with a present leadership they see as corrupt. While its happy closing montage may not be fully convincing, the film clearly has hope that Cambodia will escape its recent history, however unlikely it is to return to its ancient greatness.
Production companies: PhotoSynthesis Productions, Ithaca Filmworks
Distributor: Journeyman Pictures
Director-director of photography: Robert H. Lieberman
Screenwriter-editor: David Kossack
Producers: Deborah C. Hoard, Robert H. Lieberman