Today’s post is a follow-up to my preview of the International Southeast Asian Film Festival. Last night I went to one of the feature films, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor. It was a powerful, touching film that was really well-done – informative and inspiring. And I loved the Q&A with filmmaker Arthur Dong.
The Killing Fields
So just to start I’ll explain that the film is about one specific survivor’s experience of The Killing Fields, a period of systematic torture and genocide that the Khmer Rouge inflicted about the Cambodian people in the late 1970s. The story of The Killing Fields came to the attention of many Westerners in the early 1980s when a film of the same name was released. Others learned about it more recently from the news; in 2009 the Khmer Rouge Tribunal began to investigate the crimes against humanity that occurred during this horrific time.
Dr. Haing S. Gnor
Dr. Haing S. Gnor was a doctor in Cambodia who was a victim of The Killing Fields. He was tortured, he lost most of his family, and his wife died in his arms when she was seven months pregnant with their child due at least in part to the starvation they were going forced to endure. He escaped with his niece and came to America.
Through a series of circumstances, he was asked to become an actor in the film The Killing Fields. He hadn’t intended to become an actor – a career that isn’t a high-status career in Cambodia. However, he was able to share his story and the story of his homeland through this work. He won an Academy Award for the role and went on to do many, many speaking engagements to educate people about his story and about what was going on in Cambodia.
What many people who saw The Killing Fields original film didn’t realize is that there was no happy ending. The Khmer Rouge was ousted but that was followed by Vietnamese control. Death, devastation and the effects of the entire situation continued after the Khmer Rouge fell apart. Dr. Haing S. Gnor educated others about this.
In 1996, Dr. Gnor was murdered outside of his Chinatown, Los Angeles home. He had continued to live there despite his financial success, in large part because he was involved in helping the community living in the area. Gang members were convicted of his murder, which reportedly was a robbery gone wrong, but there remains some suspicion to this day that Gnor was really killed because of his activist efforts to speak out about what was happening in Cambodia.
This film depicts the entire story. It shares Gnor’s story as part of a larger story to continue educating people about The Killing Fields and the impact of the entire experience on the Cambodian people. One of the things that we learned was the Cambodian word “kum“, which describes a particular mindset of the Cambodia people. Dr. Gnor wrote in his autobiography:
“Kum is a Cambodian word for a particularly Cambodian mentality of revenge – to be precise, a long-standing grudge leading to revenge much more damaging than the original injury. If I hit you with my fist and you wait five years and then shoot me in the back one dark night, that is kum . . . Cambodians know all about kum. It is the infection that grows on our national soul.”
The film is based on the autobiography and there is narration directly from the book. The film also incorporates archival footage from the era, some of which was documented by the Khmer Rouge for propaganda, film footage including footage from The Killing Fields, and modern footage of Dr. Gnor’s niece and a smily friend going through his possessions. Additionally, animation is incorporated geniously into the film. Some of the darkest scenes are done in animation, and this makes it possible to watch them while still retaining dramatic effect. It was a smart choice by the filmmaker.
Filmmaker Arthur Dong
Arthur Dong is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and it was great to have him there for the Q&A last night, because he was able to provide additional insight into the making of the film. He shared that he actually hadn’t known much about Cambodia before beginning this film. I hadn’t known much about this region at all, and I had never seen The Killing Fields, so it was somewhat of a relief to hear that he also hadn’t known much, even though that’s also a tragedy. In any case, he had read the story and was so moved by it. He believed it would make a great film and he wanted to use his story telling capabilities to share this story.
I was really touched that he also shared that he had some residual cultural guilt that motivated his interest in making this film. He is Chinese American, and he shared that during the late 1970s there was a big movement towards embracing the pride in this culture, a movement that was prevalent here in San Francisco where he lived, and a movement that he was a part of. He went to China in 1978 for a visit, as one of the first tourists allowed in without a guide. He had no idea of the Chinese involvement in what was happening in Cambodia at this exact same time. He didn’t learn about this until he learned Dr. Haing S. Gnor’s story, and as he has shown the film around, he has learned that many, many other Chinese nationals do not know about this. He wanted to share the story to help heal the global world.
Researcher and Filmmaker Asiroh Cham
The Q&A also included Asiroh Cham, the researcher who really did all of the groundwork to make this film happen. She shared some terrific background information about the process, such as how the archival footage needed to be tracked down. She also shared a bit of her personal story, with parents who had survived the Khmer Rouge, and how the Dr. Gnor’s story hit home for her as she worked on this film.
Asiroh Cham also had a short film featured at this film festival called My Name is Asiroh Cham. She was interviewed about her work here.
I-SEA Film Festival
Arthur Dong shared that as a filmmaker, these types of film festivals can sometimes start to all feel alike. He travels from city to city and while he’s grateful for the opportunity to screen his work, he doesn’t always get the opportunity to see what other people are doing because of the nature of participating in so many film festivals. He also shared that as soon as he looked at the lineup for this film festival, he knew that he needed to take full advantage of the opportunity to see what was here; he had just seen Chanthaly before his film aired. He shared that the folks running this film festival did what he believed to be an amazing job putting this lineup together. Based on what I was able to preview online and the viewing of his film, I would agree. It’s a film festival that shares a terrific amount of culture and history, giving a narrative voice to the people who have lived through a variety of circumstances that we in the western world often don’t understand. This festival was put on by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network.