Cambodia Documentaries

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan


There has been a huge volume of books published about Cambodia, and many of these are readily available here. I spent many long hours trawling bookshelves in New York, London, and other cities looking for them. Sometimes gems would appear, but finding any book that is out of print is difficult in the West. Similarly, there have been plenty of documentaries made on Cambodia, but these are even more evasive.

If you weren’t home that night, or lived in the wrong country, you’d have missed them. So luckily, now many of these are available in video shops and at market stalls around the city. The following is a selection.

Year Zero- The Silent Death of Cambodia- John Pilger 1979

This comes packaged in a 3 DVD set entitled Documentaries that Changed the World. The first documentary which Pilger made, The Quiet Mutiny starts off this set. It’s a sometimes almost funny look at the jaded, stoned, and ultimately nihilist GIs out in ‘Nam around 1970. The set is worth buying for this film alone, but let’s get back to the subject matter.
Year Zero

Year Zero was the first Western documentary to come out of Cambodia after Pol Pot’s forces were pushed west in 1979. I first saw it first the time it came out, but I’m not absolutely sure of the precise date as I was in junior school then. I recall being shocked at the time, and it was a big deal in school with all sorts of charity drives and stuff going on.

More importantly for me, it was the first time I had ever heard of Cambodia, I knew where the USSR, China, and even Vietnam were, but this Kampuchea was a new one. Year Zero is grim viewing, its footage of an almost deserted and mostly ruined necropolis is something that has to seem bizarre even to someone who has never been here and seen how lively and manic it now is in 2008. It’s hard to believe what a goddamn wreck the whole place looks. It gets even worse when Pilger visits Pursat and checks out conditions there, which are not a whole lot above Stone Age. Later we get to see anthrax victims, with unspeakable deformities, and see a lot of very ill people. In fact, the impression you get from the film is that most of the country is sick, which was probably true anyway. Not exactly cheery stuff but still a great seminal documentary.

Cambodia-The Betrayal- John Pilger 1991

I saw this when it came out too, unfortunately the copy I bought recently had been dubbed into Thai, but fortunately with proper English subtitles. It concentrates on the Western, ASEAN AND Chinese government’s collusion with the Khmer Rouge after their ousting from power, which is something that might seem obvious now, but at the time was mainly hidden. After the pull- out of the Vietnamese army in 1989 there were very real fears about the re-emergence of the Khmer Rouge.

This pre-UNTAC piece is dated in many ways but still gives a unique view into the country in the many ways unsure SOC period. Of course it is colored by Pilger’s predictably doctrinaire leftist opinions, but these are nowhere near as stifling and over-bearing as they can sometimes be.

Pol Pot-Secret Killer- AETV Biography series 1997

A well researched biography of the elusive Saloth Sar, this film attempts to go into the background and discovers plenty in the process. We get to see the man’s home village, hear from his brother, and even see his apartment in Paris. Ieng Sary contributes with his thoughts on the man, concentrating on his character rather than his political achievements. It must have been very difficult to make this, given the lack of footage available on its subject, but somehow they have managed to dig up plenty.

From War to Peace- Tim Page- 2007

Although I have to admit admiring Tim Page in a big way, this set was somewhat of a disappointment. Much of it is made up of various collections of his, I have to say, excellent photographs. One later part has an interview with Page, and he expresses his opinion that a still image can express more than any moving footage. I agree with him in many ways, however I don’t think a TV is a good place to view photos. You might even have a 56 inch plasma screen, but they’ll still look better on a 10X8 B&W print. The aforementioned interview is compressed to bits, resulting in a blocky picture and incomprehensible sound. Maybe this is down to the bootleggers though, either way I’d still recommend any of his books.

Cambodia- The Prince and the Prophesy. James Gerrard 1988.
Cambodia- Kampuchea. James Gerrard 1988

These two Australian- produced movies come as a set. The title for the first comes from a well known prophesy attributed to a sage in the late 19th century. It tells of ‘black birds’, ruin and rotten smelling bad stuff coming down on Cambodia. The first film mainly deals with the run-up to the victory of April 17, 1975, and the second deals mainly with the period following the 1979 Vietnamese intervention. We hear a lot of Norodom Sihanouk’s opinions interspersing the footage, and both films are clearly partisan and sometimes quite critical of the Phnom Penh government. It has to be remembered though that these were the prevalent opinions in the West at the time, and it is only in retrospect that these seem in many ways counter-productive in any peace-making efforts.

Cambodia-The Bloodiest Domino-2001

This deals mainly with the United States’ bombing of Cambodia and the run up to the KR takeover. It has a fairly anti-American slant, but nonetheless is fascinating. You get a picture of how desperate the Khmer Republic must have been, again fairly depressing viewing. Some of the footage is extremely brutal, so if you don’t want to see what a bunch of people look like after they have been cannibalized, don’t watch this! Concentrating on the lead up to April 1975 takeover, it also has some footage from the Pol Pot regime, and briefly covers the period up to the Vietnamese withdrawal.

The Dark Side of Cambodia

This film is similar in style to the previous one, but covers a later period. It gives some background on the civil war and Pol Pot regime, but deals mainly with the aftermath, and UNTAC. It has a much more positive outlook as it shows life in Cambodia returning to something with a little more resemblance to normality. The footage of the dark and dangerous Phnom Penh mean streets of the mid 90s and a generally impoverished looking country do illustrate just how far things have come in the past 15 years or so since the film was made.

All these films are available on DVD in Cambodia for around $2 from the usual bootleg outlets.

Dermot Sheehan

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