Friday, 7 March 2008

Cambodian Dreams: Hope and hardship in the 1980s

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 17 / 05, March 7 - 20, 2008


Twenty years after he began work on it, Stanley Harper’s movie Cambodian Dreams is ready for release March 27 at Chaktomuk Theatre in a ceremony to be presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

The film documents the parallel stories of rural farm grandmother Yan Chheing’s struggle in a refugee camp in Thailand, and her daughter’s hard life in the rice fields of Cambodia. It will air on all national TV stations simultaneously.

At the Council of Ministers last week, Sok An honored Chheing, the unlikely film star, praising her for her love of Cambodia and her unwavering work ethic portrayed in the film.

The spirited grandmother told the ministers she had refused to “sit and grow fat” in the refugee camp because it was better to always work hard whatever the circumstances.

On screen, Chheing often voices her frustration at having to live like a “parasite” on handouts at the refugee camp and not being able to work to earn a living. She desperately tries to ingrain this work ethic into her grandchildren through both her stories of the past and her example during their many years as refugees, expressing a fear they would “be content with life in the camps because it is all they know.”

Although he had met Chheing two years earlier while working on a BBC documentary, Harper, a New Zealander who is a long time resident of Phnom Penh, said he began work on Cambodian Dreams in 1988.

The filming took place in two locations – Site 2 refugee camp about 50km from the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and a village near Battambang where Chheing’s daughter Tha struggled to work a small piece of land with her husband and children.

During the 1980s hostilities ran high between those who fled to refugee camps and rural farmers who stayed behind to rebuild the country despite the hardships.

Harper cited the jealousy and animosity felt toward those who seemed to be living an easy life in the camps with food, clothing, shelter and medicine.

Meanwhile, in the camps, families struggled to find meaning to their lives and longed to return to their homeland.

Harper said his intention was to document both sides to promote understanding and reconciliation, firstly between this particular family and then throughout the country by telling their story.

“I don’t know what impact the film will have but it is time for Khmer people to realize they are one people and need to help each other and be proud of who they are,” he said. “We need to work together. This is my dream.”

In a review for the Los Angeles Times, film critic David Thomas described the film as “a heartbreaking yet understated study of individuals longing for their roots and craving the dignity of self sufficiency.”

Chheing who now lives in Battambang, said she was very happy and excited to be invited by Sok An for the meeting.

“I never thought my life could be as good as this,” she said.

Chheing said when she was first approached by Harper about the film she agreed because she thought it would be fun.

“He told me to wait and see,” Chheing said. “I was shocked when I came here and saw myself in the film yesterday. I never thought it would be such a big deal.”

Following a discussion among government officials and those involved in the film’s production, Sok An presented Chheing with gifts of rice, noodles, bedding and $1,000.

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