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.


Counterpulse, Arts Fundraising and Down’s Syndrome


Capacitor dance photo via Facebook

Over the weekend I went to Counterpulse, a local arts organization that specializes in producing cutting-edge works of performance art. They have been in the same spot in SoMA for a decade but are moving to a new building in Tenderloin later this year. I had been there before and enjoyed the space and the mission of the place but hadn’t attended anything there in a long time. I didn’t realize that what I was attending was a fundraising event, but it ended up giving me a great perspective on the place.


I heard about the May Day event because of an email from Capacitor, one of the five groups performing on the night that I went. They’re an aerial-contortionist-dance group that I always find amazing and I look forward to seeing their work. They didn’t disappoint of course, sharing and excerpt from a longer work that will be at Fort Mason next year that I’m already looking forward to.

Capacitor has been working with Counterpulse for the past year. The other performances were a mixture of similar work helped along by Counterpulse and performances by other partner / sister organizations in the Bay Area like ODC theater. Both types of performance were interesting. There was a wearable technology performance where movement altered voice sounds in a captivating way. There were two pieces that had a humorous edge. And there was a solo dance performance using a oversized chair as an impressive prop. I loved the mixture of performances, the unique inspiration of each, the abbreviated look at the dance community in the Bay Area.

directors counterpulse

Counterpulse executive director Tomás Riley with artistic director Julie Phelps

What was interesting was that it was also a fundraising event. Before the show and during intermission was a silent auction where people could bid on items including wine, bodywork, art, bike tours, overnight getaways, book collections and more. Between the two final acts there was an “auctioning of the bills”. This was fascinating to watch. The directors of Counterpulse got on stage and shared a breakdown of the different costs of operating their new facility, asking people to take on a portion of the costs. They said it was a way for donors to let people really know where their money was going. And of course it helped to make their costs really transparent.

It was fascinating to watch what people would contribute for or not, something that seemed to be based on the item up for donation rather than the dollar amount. Someone who didn’t bid on anything else shot his hand up immediately to donate enough to cover one week of free yoga for community members. Another gave to cover the cost of one month of full health insurance coverage for one of the staff members. A few donated to help provide stipend funding for arts fellows. Three more each gave a month of rent costs to keep the doors open. Another wanted to give tangibly and offered her money to the cost of office supplies and toilet paper.

Sometimes it was uncomfortable, sitting there in the audience, waiting to see if anyone would give for something specific. There was a sense of pressure to give, even though the presentation of the process was congenial and friendly, and I was curious if some people were giving out of response to that pressure. It was also interesting, as an outsider who isn’t really familiar with this community, to see how much of the giving came from a combination of staff members, board members and longtime supporters that the staff knew by name. It made me think of how we are all so passionate about our own little communities, the niches we’ve found ourselves in that we’re willing to really give for. It made me think of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and how it’s so true that people really do want to give to others in so many different ways.

art of asking

One of the things that they were requesting donations for was the cost of maintaining the elevator in their new space. They mentioned that they were not required to include an elevator but wanted to do so as part of their ongoing commitment to full accessibility – not only so that people with disabilities can attend shows but so that dancers with varying accessibility issues can be welcomed to participate in the shows. This impressed me. I see a lot of live performances of all types and it made me think about how few have had visible disabilities of any kind.

writing with grace book

Right now I’m reading Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, a book by writer Judy McFarlane who works with a young woman named Grace who has Down’s Syndrome and is writing her own book. Judy is starkly honest about her own preconceived notions as she first met Grace and how she had to confront her own biases. She delves deep into the history of Down’s Syndrome research and litigation, both in Canada where she is based and also around the world. One of the things she highlights is the way that Down’s Syndrome fetuses are frequently aborted. I have no opinion either way on this, other than to say that I think abortion is a choice that all mothers should have though it shouldn’t be taken lightly and always comes with pain even when it’s the right choice. But the idea of it struck me because I have always kind of accepted that this is a totally reasonable choice to have and McFarlane caused me to consider that perhaps the legitimizing of aborting an entire category of humans isn’t something that should be commonly accepted.

What it really has me thinking about, I suppose, is the many different types of people there are in this world compared to the small percentage of which we consider “normal”. People on the autism spectrum, people with developmental disabilities and physical disabilities, people with major learning disabilities, people with mental health issues … there remains so much stigma around all of these things, stigma I admit I work with constantly inside my own self to varying degrees. And how each of these is considered a disability that diverges from the “norm”. But with the percentage of people affected by any one of these things, can we really say that the “norm” is norm at all?

I’ve learned a lot about the thinking process of people with autism as well as the learning process of people with dyslexia. Now in reading about Grace’s journey, I’m seeing yet another side of the same coin. And what it forces me to look at is my own value system in regards to “intelligence” and “knowledge” and “being smart”. I’ve always been smart by the standards of society. I’ve always gotten great grades in school and been able to carry on intellectual conversations on a wide range of topics and enjoy being well-read. And yet, it’s only way of learning and interacting with the world, so what I cling to as “smart” for me excludes entire categories of people who learn and express in other ways.

I realize this isn’t a new concept by any stretch, that this is something that people with different learning styles have been telling us for a long time. And yet it’s somehow impacting me in a different way right now. It’s subtle. I’m not sure what it means or will turn into or if it’s just reorganizing my thinking a little bit, which will likely reorganize my perception of and experience in the world. It’s all in process. And where I am at today.


The Balcony at the Old Mint

the balcony

I worried that I’d be too tired to go see the play I’d committed to seeing last weekend. It was a school weekend for me, which meant that I’d be in classes for almost eleven hours, classes that are intense and emotional and engaging. And yet, I felt so drawn to the play that I decided to push past the wall of tiredness and see it anyway. I walked the short distance to see The Balcony at The Old Mint in a windstorm, which seemed to appropriately set the stage for the ominous, slightly surreal play.

I’d been to The Old Mint once before, to see a lecture with my sister on sustainable gardening when the building had first reopened to the public. I was mesmerized then by the unique architecture of this historic space, with its cavernous rooms and dungeon-like vaults and labyrinth of doors opening one space onto another onto another into a courtyard. There couldn’t have been a better space picked for this play that is immersive without being interactive (a key point, because I love to be right-up-in-the-thick-of-it but definitely wasn’t in the mood to interact as a part of the theater).


The play begins in the rooms in the basement where gold used to be stored in the days when this was a money vault. Four different scenes happen simultaneously and the viewers get to wander from room to room at their own whim. I was a little worried about this part because I had mixed reactions to a similar set-up at a Speakeasy-themed play last year. I loved that one in the end but it took awhile to adjust to moving about without direction. In this case, the vignettes stood on their own and I didn’t feel pressure to catch every scene of The Balcony’s four starting scenes. Additionally, the cast of characters that weren’t in the scenes were available in the hallway to quickly direct viewers to the spots they might want to check out next. The thirty minutes went quickly and I enjoyed stepping in and out of various scenes.

Truth be told, I might not have known exactly what those scenes were about if it weren’t for the handy program that provided me with that information. The combination of walking in and out of scenes with the old-fashioned language made catching the nuances of the plot difficult. But I think that would have been the case had the play taken place in a more linear fashion on a traditional stage as well and this setting worked better because it offered a close-up, intriguing look at the set and costumes and characters. It was a good experience.

the balcony 2

The group was then ushered upstairs and the following five longer scenes took place one after the other, allowing the story to unfold and become clearer as the time went on. Mind you, it’s a French play written more than 100 years ago, so it’s not clear in the way that a contemporary play is clear, but the story of a revolution, the play-within-a-play, the specific characters’ stories all do become clear. Each scene takes place in a different room so the whole group of viewers comes into the room, led by costumed ushers who generally fit well into the scene.


I have to say that I loved the costumes of this play. Some of them (the dress of the Queen, for example) reminded me of couture wearable art that you might see at a DeYoung fabric / fashion exhibit. Others were more handcrafted and cheesy but in a way that worked. Streetwear was combined with unique artistic elements that were eye-catching and interesting.

The caliber of the actors is also notable. Not that I’ve ever questioned that here in San Francisco where we have amazing small theatre groups. Still, there were several characters in this play that really stood out as amazing actors. Irma, the Queen, was seductive and powerful. Carmen was glorious in tall heels and extravagant facial expressions. Sometimes the actors cast into specific roles were unpredictable, seeming to reflect the make-up of San Francisco’s diversity in a way that worked for this play. See the full cast here.

balcony 3

The final scene plays out in a large room that looks out onto a courtyard and a portion of the scene is actually watched through the windows. It’s a unique experience. If you want to see a unique historic play in a unique historic building (a building that you really should visit even if for some reason you don’t make it to the play), The Balcony runs Th-Sat this weekend and next weekend. Tickets here.


This Lingering Life Nominated for 8 Theatre Awards

this lingering life

This Lingering Life by Theatre of Yugen, a play I reviewed herehas been nominated in eight categories in the inaugural year of the Theatre Bay Area (TBA) Awards, which are to be held Monday, November 10th here in San Francisco.

 Individual Artist Award Category


  • Chiori Miyagawa* for Outstanding World Premiere Play
  • Michael Gardiner for Outstanding Original Underscore
  • Hideta Kitazawa for Outstanding Creative Specialty

Tier III Production Category


  • Jubilith Moore for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor
  • Lluis Valls for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor
  • Callie Floor for Outstanding Costume Design
  • Mikiko Uesugi for Outstanding Scenic Design
  • Allen Willner for Outstanding Lighting Design

Good luck wishes to everyone for their amazing creative efforts in putting together this piece.


Describe San Francisco in One Word

How might a person describe this city of mine in one word. I was intrigued to see the responses in this video (via The Bold Italic):

I think if I were going to pick just one word to describe this city, it would be playful. There are so many opportunities to play here … to play with your own identity, to play with others in activities. More than anywhere else I’ve ever been, adults embrace the joy of play.


Color Me Badd at Monarch

coloring date

My beaux and I originally met on the How About We dating site. A few months ago, we joined their relatively new site for couples where you pay a monthly fee and get a monthly date for free along with discounts on various dates. We’ve done some fun things through them although I’m not sure it’s worth the $18 monthly fee. A recent example of that was our date at Monarch, which was a fun date but not worth the $18 we paid just to get a free date for the month.

Color Me Badd

random coloring art

The date was called Color Me Badd and was supposed to be a date for two at happy hour at Monarch. It was advertised as having 90’s slow jams and risque coloring plus two free vodka drinks. I assumed that there would be dancing since I’ve been to the two-level bar before but the bottom level with the dance floor was actually closed so it was just lounging. The music wasn’t danceable anyway; there were no slow jams and whatever was playing was more in the family of heavy metal than anything nostalgic.

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More from the Cartoon Art Museum

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I’d been to the Cartoon Art Museum recently to see a women’s comic artist exhibit and a Ninja Turtles art exhibit. Here are a few more things I saw during that visit.

Animation Camera

More from the Cartoon Art Museum More from the Cartoon Art Museum More from the Cartoon Art Museum More Comic ArtMore from the Cartoon Art Museum More from the Cartoon Art Museum More from the Cartoon Art Museum More from the Cartoon Art MuseumThis one amused me because it’s about the tragedy of gas prices rising … and it was done in 1920. Some things never change!
More from the Cartoon Art Museum


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … 30 Years?!

Yesterday I mentioned that I’d been to the Cartoon Art Museum recently. I went to go see a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles art exhibit. It’s there because it’s the 30th anniversary of the Ninja Turtles. It was so weird to see childhood toys and drawings that were in my home now placed in a museum as vintage ephemera! I wasn’t interested in TNMT myself but my little brother and sister loved the movies (VHS tapes at the time) and had all of the action figures. To think that those are now museum-worthy is just so weird!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ... 30 Years?! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ... 30 Years?! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ... 30 Years?!

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