The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor

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.

Trailer: The Killing Fields of Dr Haing S Ngor from DeepFocus Productions, Inc. on Vimeo.

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.

The Film

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Gnor

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

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

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.


Kiss The Water: Niche Documentary

I randomly selected Kiss The Water on Netflix the other day and discovered that it is a really interesting documentary. It’s not compelling, on-the-edge-of-your-seat interesting but it’s really unique in both topic and style.

The story is about Megan Boyd, a niche artist who devoted her life to creating stunningly beautiful perfect flies for fly fishermen. I don’t know anything about fly fishing and didn’t even know that there was an art to this craft but it’s apparently a detailed thing. I love stories about people who commit their lives to something that no one in the mainstream world even knows much about so that kind of captured my interest.

kiss the water documentary

The film itself is artistic as well. There are these beautiful shots of hands making the flies that are close-up and edgy and vibrantly colored. They’re quite striking. There are beautiful photographic landscape images caught from unusual angles (like through dirty windows)! And there is drawing/ animation incorporated into the film in really unique ways. It’s not something that you see every day and I give a lot of credit to the filmmaker for the work that went into making it.

Like I said, it’s not like every moment of this film was fascinating for me. Some of the interviews didn’t say much. Some of the artsy moments weren’t quite my thing. But overall it was inspiring to see the creativity that went into the film and the life that the film is describing.


30 Documentaries About Architecture I Want To See

The 30 Architecture Docs To Watch In 2013

Sometimes I really like when other people publish lists of things because it gives me something to work off of to learn something new. That was the case earlier this year when I saw Arch Daily’s article called The 30 Architecture Docs To Watch In 2013. I haven’t watched anything on the list yet but I came across the bookmark on my computer and got re-interested in working my way through the list. I think it would give me a great foundation in architecture, a design area that interests me but that I don’t know a whole lot about. A lot of them seem to be available online so I’ll start there. Have you seen any of them? Got any suggestions where to start?


When We Were Here … Documentary Worth Watching

I recently watched When We Were Here, which is a documentary available on Netflix that chronciles the experience of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It was touching, informative and interesting. There were many things that I kinda-sorta-knew about that time period but this film really tied them all together and gave a clearer picture of what it was like to live through that time.

Basics of the Film

The film interviews five people. They come from various backgrounds and experiences … some were very involved in the health politics of the crisis and others were not … but what they have in common is that they all lived through the AIDS crisis in the Castro in the 1980’s and were intimately touched by the experience in one way or another.

It Was the Numbers that Shocked Me

The film reveals many touching stories and details that could wrench your heart out but for some reason it was the numbers and statitsics revealed in the movie that really got my attention. Some of the things I learned from the film:

  • It is believed that AIDS came to San Francisco around 1976 but there wasn’t an AIDS test until about five years later. By the time there was a test, approximately 50% of the gay men in San Francisco tested positive.
  • In the ~10 year time span between the first real awareness of AIDS and the time when real treatment became available more than 15,000 people in San Francisco (mostly gay men, many living in the small Castro neighborhood) died from the disease.

The film also has these really poignant images where it shows the obituaries of person after person after person. The Bay Area Reporter would just have pages of pages of headshots of those who were killed by the disease. While this is an image, it’s also about the numbers because of the way it’s laid out.

Things I Knew But Saw a Different Way

For some reason I know a lot of secondhand information about this period of time even though I never set out to learn about it. Even before moving here I’d read a number of memoirs/ anthologies of stories from that time. And maybe it’s just part of growing up as a teen in the 90’s that we learned about AIDS. Once I moved here I met a lot of people who had lived through it. One of the things that I’ve heard again and again from people is that during the early days they had friends dying literally every week. This is reiterated again in the film – one man in particular talks about losing his partner and then his best friend in a two week span. But for some reason I had never really thought about exactly what this meant until I watched the movie. I can’t imagine if all of the friends I have here in the city were dead next year. I just can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like and this was happening to so many people here at this time. I had heard people compare it to going through a war, a reference also made in the film, and after watching the documentary I kind of understand why they would say that.

Another thing I knew but really understood better after watching the film was that the community here really had to come together around this crisis. For a long time AIDS was considered a “gay disease” and this didn’t just bring stigma but also a host of problems related to that stigma. For one thing, the larger medical and political community wasn’t necessarily in a rush to solve a problem that they didn’t see as being related to them. People were dying these horrific deaths that had no cure and it was up to those same people to come together to find a cure because no one else was doing it. A related point made in the film was that it was during this time that the lesbian and gay communities really began to come together for the first time in a big way in part because with so many gay men dying around them the lesbian community stepped up and helped care for these guys.

Of course, things weren’t just hunky dory … even while the community came together there was obviously some dissent between people with differing beliefs. One example that the film brings up is that once the larger world decided to respond to the AIDS crisis they did some things that posed a risk to civil rights. This was easily a time when a backlash could occur against gay rights. So one of the things they wanted to do was shut down all of the bathhouses, which they saw as a breeding ground for the disease. Some members of the gay community were fine with this and others felt like this was a civil rights issue. So the community had to find ways to come together and fight for rights related to AIDS, health care, etc. even though there were aspects of the developing situation that not all members of the community agreed upon. (Of course, this was the case in many different areas of civil rights, not just around the AIDS crisis … such as in issues where women had to find their place in a larger civil rights movement and then minority women had to figure out their place in all of that … but it was intensified by the fact that it was happening around this huge health crisis.

Some Random Fun Facts

I am one of those San Franciscans who always gets a little thrill when I see my city in movies of any kind. And I always like learning new facts that are more “insider information”. So there were random things in this film that I liked for that. For example, I learned that Under One Roof was almost named AIDSmart. Under One Roof is an organization that sells retail items with proceeds going to AIDS organizations. I know about it (and have shopped there during the holiday season) because a friend volunteers there. So it’s one of those local things that I now know this random tidbit about that I didn’t know before.


Conclusion: This is a film that tells some really great personal stories while sharing great educational information about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Totally worth a watch.


March Will Be For Documentaries

I didn’t do too well with my plan to watch classic romance films in February. I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time and loved it and then didn’t really watch any others. That’s okay. For March I decided to go with a film category that it is one of my favorites: documentaries.

So far I’ve watched:


Grizzly Man is the true story of Timothy Treadwell who went and lived up close and personal with Alaska’s wild bears for thirteen summers in a row but that ended tragically when he and his girlfriend were eaten alive. It’s a traditional documentary that combines Treadwell’s own footage with narration of the story and interviews with those people who were involved in some way.

Awful Normal reminds me a bit more of some of the experimental documentaries I watched a little of in January. It’s the true story of two adult women who were molested as girls by a family friend and their journey to go confront him to get closure. There are some odd film moments such as when they turn the camera off at the man’s request but keep the audio rolling so you only see a black screen. All in all, I felt like it was a powerful documentary with truth at the heart of it.


12 Years of Daily Self Portraits Create an Inspiring Story

I’m just starting to wake up. For me that means, in part, going through my Twitter feed as I enjoy my first cup of coffee. I followed a link from one of my Tweeps to a video by a man who has done a self-portrait every day for twelve years. That’s a long time to keep committed to a daily project, which is inspiring in and of itself. More that that, though, the well-edited video shows how our daily activities make up our lives and how art can be used to transform our own lives. I wanted to share:

Jeff Harris: 4,748 Self-Portraits and Counting from We Know Music on Vimeo.

Via BoooooooM


SmartChick Watches: Naked States

This morning I woke up earlier than I would have liked. It was one of those mornings when you’re still too tired to get up and do anything but you’re not quite tired enough to actually go back to sleep. I tried reading for awhile (am almost done with The Knitting Circle) but decided that wasn’t feeling right so I switched over to watching a documentary on Netflix instead. The documentary was called Naked States and was about the work of a photographer named Spencer Tunick. Thought-provoking little piece of art.

Tunick had a goal of going around the country and taking photographs of nude people in public spaces in ever single state in the continental United States. He didn’t seem to set any specific goals about how many people would show up to be photographed or where specifically he wanted to capture his images. Some of the things he did seem to establish as goals or parameters for himself included:

  • The nudity would be total nudity and wouldn’t include things like shoes, jewelry or hats in the images.
  • He would get the people for each shoot by going around the area when he arrived and asking people to participate.
  • The shots would be done early in the morning in public spaces. Some of these would be famous spaces (like the Boston Public Library) but many would be random, urban, industrial spots that he found. He didn’t want to do “pretty” shots or a lot of nature shots.
  • The images would provide a lot of contrast in them. He poses large people with small people, black with white, etc.
  • At some point he did seem to want to get a lot of people involved. He achieved this when he shot at a Phish concert and had more than 1000 naked people participate.
The documentary shows Tunick going around completing this project. It shows some of the positive and negative reactions that he experienced in different places. I loved that it showed some realistic footage of how people in various areas would react but didn’t stereotype things too much. For example, it showed people in places like North Dakota saying that this was a weird thing to do but it didn’t make them out to be hokey rednecks who couldn’t handle it which a video like this totally could have erred in doing.
The content of the video is interesting. It’s interesting to see how the different models felt about themselves while participating in a public nude art session. It’s interesting to see who shows up. It’s interesting to ponder the many questions that arise in terms of the controversy surrounding public nudity and the various strong stances that people take about it. What I really liked about the documentary, however, was that it showed a lot of insight into the creative process.
Naked States shows how an art project goes from an idea to a gallery show. It shows how you have to believe in your own artwork, go out there and create it, promote it while staying true to the vision of it and then eventually network it into a show. It shows how people who are helping you may get frustrated with you, bicker with you, doubt you. It shows, in other words, what it’s like to be a working artist today. It’s a cool flick. I’d Netflix it again. :)