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Survivors: Film examines legacy of Cambodian genocide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Filmmaker Socheata Poeuv once asked her father to describe the worst part of his life under the Khmer Rouge, the nightmarish regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979 and was responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people from starvation, disease or execution.

It was the silence, her father said.

But for 25 years -- even while building "a normal American life" in Dallas where relatives had sponsored the family's relocation -- Poeuv's parents continued to keep that silence. They did not speak out about the horrors they had witnessed. They simply would not talk about how they survived when nearly one-fourth of the Cambodian population had not.

"Growing up, I knew more about the Holocaust than the killing fields of Cambodia,'' said Poeuv, 28, in a recent phone interview.

The silence held until Christmas Day 2002, when Poeuv's mother called her children together and revealed long-held secrets of their family tree: Poeuv's mother, who lost 30 relatives to the Khmer Rouge, explained that she had been married before she met Poeuv's father in a labor camp. Her husband and daughter died in the genocide, while she and Poeuv's brother -- who was born of her first marriage -- had survived. Poeuv's brother is, in fact, her half-brother. What's more, Poeuv's two older sisters are actually her cousins, the daughters of her mother's sister who starved to death in the camp. They were rescued by Poeuv's parents who asked them to keep their ancestry secret.

Poeuv was stunned and had more questions than her mother was willing to answer.

"My parents raised us as a normal nuclear family, and I found out that we are not a normal nuclear family at all,'' Poeuv said. "We are a patchwork quilt of survivors."

After her mother's revelation, Poeuv traveled with her brother and parents to Cambodia to meet the relatives who had stayed behind. Their quest is documented in Poeuv's film "New Year Baby,'' which premieres on the PBS series "Independent Lens" later this month.

Just following directions

The title of the documentary comes from Poeuv's family nickname. They always called her "the lucky one" because she was born on April 13, the Cambodian New Year's Day, after the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand. While visiting Cambodia, Poeuv said she realized how different she is from her parents -- how American she is.

In one of the more telling scenes, Poeuv learns that her parents were forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge. Her father admits that fact during a meeting Poeuv arranged with a former district chief of the Khmer Rouge -- the man responsible for the labor camp where her parents lived.

Poeuv's father is distressed and will not look directly at his former oppressor. Afterward, he nearly collapses in exhaustion.

During the meeting that takes place in a remote village, Poeuv asks all of the questions, including this one: "Are you haunted by the memory of the thousands who died?''

"No. They never come to my conscience,'' the man replies, and then adds, "What could I do? I was led by the Angka," the ruling body of the Khmer Rouge.

Poeuv was shocked by the man's demeanor.

"He wasn't contrite. It was as if I had presented him with this new idea -- that he had never thought of this before,'' Poeuv said.

Throughout the documentary, Poeuv's parents are clearly uneasy with the cameras.

"They were nervous, and there was resistance," Poeuv said, acknowledging that at times she was apprehensive about pushing them to confront their past.

On the other hand, she said her sisters were relieved that the truth was finally out so they could speak about the parents they lost in Cambodia.

"I think it had been painful for them not to have the opportunity to remember their first families," Poeuv said.

Time to break the silence

There is a culture of silence surrounding the Cambodian genocide, Poeuv said, and her documentary is just one attempt to break through it -- to transform shame and denial into honor and heroism. To that end, she has founded Khmer Legacies, a project to record the oral histories of genocide survivors.

"Through telling the truth, you open a door to healing,'' Poeuv said. "There is value in remembering."

Poeuv said her parents have come to accept this public telling of their most private secrets. The first time they watched the film -- with people other than family members -- was at a film festival in Dallas.

"I brought them to the stage afterward, and the audience gave them a standing ovation," Poeuv said. "They had never been treated that way before."

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