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Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia
Directing: B-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

How many Americans today even know about the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's faction of Communists behind the genocide that wiped out 1.7 million people -- over 20% of the country -- between 1975 and 1979? Until this year, I knew nothing about it. I cannot recall even learning about it in school. The United States has an embarrassingly short memory when it comes to history, and our own modern history, this documentary film reminds us, is significantly intertwined with that of Cambodia. How many also recall, then, that Nixon's first article of impeachment had to do with not Watergate, but his secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War?

The makers of Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia recall. "Good or bad," one of the talking heads in the film points out, it was Vietnam invading Cambodia in 1979 that stopped the Khmer Rouge, without which many living Cambodians today believe they would absolutely be dead now.

This Cambodian genocide is unique in that, unlike any other genocide in world history, it did not follow years or decades or centuries of hatred between easily separated groups. The Khmer Rouge emerged victorious after a civil war fought between people of differing political ideologies, complicated by Vietnam supporting one side and the U.S. the other. They then got this hair brained idea that their country could only thrive under a strictly agrarian-based socialist system -- so strict, in fact, that they kicked all city dwellers out of their homes, and forced millions of people who had no agricultural skills to live off the land. They believed in eliminating anyone involved in free-market activities, which they broadly defined as city dwellers or intellectuals or even anyone who was educated: even doctors and nurses were killed. In this film, a couple of people speak about how even people with glasses were targeted, because that was seen as a sign of intellectualism. They would check for indents on noses, and test people by having them repair bicycles which had screws too small to see.

Now, forty years later, the lasting result of this genocide is a couple of baby booms resulting in nearly 70% of the population being under the age of 30. This makes for some stark generational differences in attitudes and behaviors, which is largely the focus of Angkor Awakens.

It certainly is fascinating to see these differences demonstrated onscreen, between an older population still suffering from PTSD and a younger population almost creepily naive in their dismissiveness, how they openly take it for granted that something like the Khmer Rouge will never happen again. But it's also clear that this country's history is incredibly complex, and there is simply no way to do it true justice in a cinematic portrait lasting all of ninety minutes.

It's a double-edged sword, to be sure. Without this movie, plenty of audiences would go on knowing little to nothing about this history. On the other hand, the effects of a portrait like this can be unfair. Consider the man who notes how Cambodians are famously friendly and open with quick and easy smiles, yet they can snap into severe violence in an instant. That's a pretty stark generalization. Are we to regard all Cambodians over the age of 30 this way? Apparently there is a lot of supplies readily available for acid attacks, which are a common occurrence in Cambodia. Even after all the talk of the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, the most haunting moment in Angkor Awakens is when a woman reveals here horrifyingly disfigured face from an acid attack.

There follows discussion of "baksbat," or "broken courage," a cultural sort of PTSD in Cambodia. This applies mostly, of course, to living survivors of the genocide, but these things have lasting effects on later generations. Angkor Awakens provides plenty of food for thought along such lines, as we see people of all ages discussing their own experience with this unique history. That said, ninety minutes can only feature a handful of such people, who thus cannot possibly provide a sufficient portrait. That's the real issue with Angkor Awakens: it is, in the end, insufficient -- not to mention somewhat uneven in its editing. One would do well to read about this stuff in a book, which can offer far more nuanced analysis. But, in the context of film, it still offers some very compelling food for thought and cause for reflection.

Young people now make up a majority of Cambodia's population, thanks to a bizarre 1970s genocide reflected on in ANGKOR AWAKENS: A PORTRAIT OF CAMBODIA.

Overall: B
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