March 8th 2011
by S.M. | PHNOM PENH
RELEASED in 1984, “The Killing Fields” was an unforgettable glimpse into the ghastly hell of Cambodia under Pol Pot. For many moviegoers, it illuminated a largely unknown genocide that killed an estimated 1.7m people and ended only with Vietnam’s invasion in 1979. Even then another decade of civil war was to follow. The film won a slew of awards and lots of acclaim for its British director, Roland Joffe.
Pol Pot and the murderous Khmer Rouge are long gone, but the legacy of war lingers in Cambodia. Look no further than the ranks of amputees in towns and villages. Some are the victims of landmines, of which rival armies scattered at least 4m, along with other unexploded ordnance, during and after the Vietnam’s war of independence. The toll continues to rise. Last year, 71 people died and 215 were injured by leftover munitions, according to the Mines Advisory Group, a charity.
In recent years Cambodia has tried to turn this handicap to its advantage with a disabled volleyball league. The league has thrived, making heroes of its amputees, who also compete for their country on the international stage. This year’s World Cup for disabled volleyball will be held in Phnom Penh in July, for the second time in four years. North Korea and Egypt are among the contenders.
Mr Joffe wants to bring Cambodia’s sporting triumph to the big screen. Having plumbed its tragic depths, with his new film he would put a more cheerful spin the country’s story by concentrating on what happened after the fighting ended. He calls the project a “living postscript” to “The Killing Fields”, and laments that Cambodia “keeps getting forgotten” by the rest of the world. An uplifting movie about disabled athletes punching their way out of poverty might be just the ticket. Unlike “The Killing Fields”, which was mostly filmed in Thailand, the volleyball picture would be shot on Cambodia’s own playing fields—provided Mr Joffe can pull together the necessary financing.
These days, there is plenty of money sloshing around Cambodia, which averaged over 9% GDP growth between 2000-2007, before the world’s financial crisis struck. The economy is now revving again. Last year, Chinese investors promised to spend billions of dollars on power and agricultural projects. South Korean firms are also increasingly active. This means more potential sponsors for the disabled volleyball league. The 13 teams it fields currently all depend on corporate largesse for their kit, fields and salaries.
Chris Minko, a bluff Australian, runs the league on a tight budget. He says more teams are waiting in the wings, mostly in rural towns bereft of sponsors. He hopes that the release of a hit movie by Mr Joffe might bring a raft of new donations and help put the league on a firmer footing. It would also, naturally, shine a spotlight on Mr Minko, a longtime resident of Cambodia: his is one of the current script’s lead characters (“a cynical, 40-something alcoholic”).
As for Mr Joffe, a cinematic return to Cambodia, where he still does charity work occasionally, would mark a change of pace. His latest film, “There Be Dragons”, concerns the Spanish civil war and the founder of Opus Dei. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that his second Cambodian movie could be a more hopeful affair.