Sitting in a cafe in Phnom Penh, filmmaker Bunhom Chhorn is preparing himself for the screening of his new documentary for the Cambodia International Film Festival. He knows what critics are saying about the film that took him 12 years to finish.
The phrase, “not another film about the Khmer Rouge,” is a typical response from many Khmer cinemagoers who are looking for more variation from the growing film industry, but Mr. Chhorn feels those critics are missing the point of his documentary.
There are no records of ‘Camp 32’, the name Mr. Chhorn gave to the area where he was forced into a children’s labor camp in 1978 and which the survivors call 32-32. It is also the title of his documentary. There, at just five years old, he was forced to do hard labor in the rice fields and suffered severe malnutrition. In the end, he and 150 other children were left in the jungle to fend for themselves – only he and three other boys returned alive.
Reunited with his mother and surviving siblings, they fled from his birthplace of Battambang to the Khao I Dang refugee camp and then migrated to Australia. Despite starting a new life in Australia, Mr. Chhorn is still haunted by that time. At 43, Mr. Chhorn and others like him had never talked openly about their past.
One day in early 2000, Mr. Chhorn was asked to speak at a Jewish memorial day in Melbourne. After sharing his story, a man came up and told him something that would forever change his life. The stranger said, “It’s very painful to talk about the past, but you must remember as a survivor, you have a task – whether you want to or not, you have a task to re-tell and re-live it again and again, in the hopes that it never happens again.”
That stranger turned out to be the little boy from Schindler’s List.
An estimated 30,000 people may have died at Camp 32, but there are no records of it. All those memories and his past were left out of the history pages. All that is left are his nightmares and the silent grief he shared with his mother and siblings.
“You have to start the journey so that other people can remember,” said Mr. Chhorn. After that chance meeting, he spent the next decade interviewing other survivors during alcohol-fueled confessions and late night memories of the dark past they would rather forget.
Slowly, their tales started to unlock Mr. Chhorn’s own memories. Stories of how a young Muslim boy was forced to choose between eating pork and death or how a man was forced to burn his own grandmother in a temple, are all the hidden voices kept out of documented history.
Even more determined to shed light on the darkness of these nightmares, Mr. Chhorn set forth to look for Camp 32, slowly uncovering his own family’s secret which they kept silent, even from each other.
Mr. Chhorn is not the first person to look into his experiences in a child camp.
“In the book, ‘First they killed my Father,’ people questioned how the author could remember all of his experiences,” Mr. Chhorn said. “But you piece it together and that’s how it is.”
There are many people who wish to continue to keep silent about Cambodia’s dark history, Mr. Chhorn knows. “If my generation dies, the next generation of Cambodians will never know what happened,” he explained. “They have gone through trauma and they don’t want you to open something they have kept closed for a long time.”
For Mr. Chhorn, the film’s mission is to document the lives and memories of those who went through Camp 32 and ensure that they are remembered.
“What matters is that people know about the story, and about Camp 32,” he said. “We need more humanity.”