Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Broken promises & broken courage


A temple face in Cambodia, from Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia.
Photo: PhotoSynthesis Productions
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History is never easy, but it is never so difficult as when a people have been systematically duped by their so-called democratic institutions. So it is that today, when Americans look at the world around them in bewilderment, they find absolutely no guidance from their history books or politicians. Like children, we are supposed to be incapable of withstanding the truth about our own foreign policy, and that of our parents. There are ways around this, there are independent journalists, and there are filmmakers. So you might be tempted to go see Angkor Awakens, a documentary or infomercial about Cambodia, opening Friday at the Clay.

Sometimes you can tell right away where a documentarian is coming from, or at least get a sense of where she or he is heading, intuitively. Angkor Awakens – A Portrait of Cambodia kept me in suspense until minute 79 of 82 minutes' total run-time. The word "development" inserted into an anodyne sentence provided the key to this not-so-mysterious compilation of bits and pieces of black-and-white archival footage, talking-head experts, full-color sweeping landscapes, and smiling young representatives of Cambodian youth. The movie is not a disinterested or critical history, but a backgrounder for investors and other global mercenaries.

"Cambodia can be anything, because we have reached a turning point," are the last words of the film, spoken by a middle-aged native in precise English. They are such sad, haunting words for a once-proud, sovereign empire and sophisticated culture, now doomed to be opened up for business. Odd that such a film should find distribution to a neighborhood platform for independent cinema, but these hybrid faux documentaries are more and more frequent, or I'm finally wise enough to spot them. The director, Robert Lieberman, a Cornell physicist, already produced one of these on Myanmar.

Angkor Awakens is not well-made. The first 22 minutes are a hodge-podge of multiple talking heads, none of whom is contextualized, who offer shards of a mosaic by way of unnecessary prologue. The next 30 minutes comprise a history lesson beginning in the 9th century, fleetingly and without depth. A perusal of Wikipedia would tell you the same. In 1860, Cambodia became a French protectorate, and in 1941 the well-beloved King Sihanouk took the throne and ushered in a modern golden age. Sihanouk, a true man of the people, was doomed to be crushed by Henry Kissinger, in his role as advisor to President Nixon.

Angkor Awakens doesn't lie about Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, but it leaves out the part where USA secretly provides the means of Pol Pot's coming to power, tippy-toes around the CIA's coup to overthrow Sihanouk, ignores the cause-and-effect involved in the subsequent reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, like other despots USA supports then denounces, makes a very convenient villain. Most of the film's history lesson is devoted to bemusement over the subsequent killing of Cambodians by Cambodians. The level of hypocrisy is nauseating, the allusions by ex-government officials to Nazi Germany a delusional form of chutzpah.

The history lesson ends with the arrival of Hun Sen, who rose to prominence in the fight to depose Pol Pot, got his start as foreign minister, and advanced to prime minister. The final 30 minutes lay the groundwork for getting rid of him, including tidbits from an opposition leader in exile, and cheery street demonstrations in which the youth of Cambodia in brightly colored baseball caps enthuse about some vague notion of freedom. A psychologist uses the term baksat, or "broken courage," to describe the mass mental trauma suffered by the older generation. Now a nation of youth is apparently ripe for the picking.


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