In a few hours the 86th Academy Awards will start in Los Angeles, California. Beautiful celebrities dressed in gorgeous gowns and dashing tuxedos will adorn the red carpet with their perfectly manicured hair and makeup. For the first time in history, among those celebrities is Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, whose film “The Missing Picture” is nominated for the Best Foreign Film. This is the first Academy nomination for Cambodia. The film is beautifully original and a creative masterpiece, which uses clay figures to recreate Mr. Panh’s traumatic experience during the Khmer Rouge regime. These clay figures are juxtaposed between Khmer Rouge propaganda film.
I can only imagine what Mr. Panh must be feeling right now. A sense of excitement, nervousness, fatigue and elation all come to mind. As he strolls down the red carpet among those glamorous celebrities I hope he knows that the pride of a nation will be with him. As we anxiously wait for his name to be called, for a brief instant we may forget the poverty, inequality, corruption, and political divides that plagues the nation and for a moment in time, we are united behind him cheering for our country. This is in stark contrast to Cambodia’s first Oscar nomination 30 years ago...
In 1984 a film called the “Killing Fields” exposed to the world the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. The drama is based on the true story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter, who stayed in Cambodia to help his friend, New York Times journalist, Sydney Schanberg to uncover Cambodia’s unfolding political nightmare and the rise of the Khmer Rouge to power. The drama captures Dith Pran's remarkable story of survival during the Khmer Rouge regime. The film received seven Academy Award nominations in March 1985, and won three of them, including Best Supporting Actor by the late Dr. Haing S. Nor. It was a moment to be proud, yet many Cambodians couldn’t show it because we were still trying to grapple with what had just happened to us and to our country.
In 1985 Cambodia was still in a state of war and chaos. The Khmer Rouge was still at large and trying to reclaim power from a new and weak government. Those who survived the Khmer Rouge and stayed in Cambodia returned to their homes and struggled to survive with little food, little infrastructure (water, sanitation and electricity), no institutions, and lack of security. The country literally had to rebuild from scratch. Meanwhile those who left Cambodia for another country struggled as refugees to navigate a new world. They had to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, confront racism, and struggled to instill in their children their cultural values. The Khmer children struggled to find their identity and sense of belonging. Some Khmer diaspora lived in violent neighborhoods and had to grapple with gang violence as an everyday occurrence.
While I am sure many Khmer people were proud that Cambodia won such a prestigious award, they were also not ready to celebrate and confront the horrors of their past because many were still in survival mode, no matter where they were in the world. There was no time to heal from the post-traumatic stress because in order to survive, many had to bury their feelings, thoughts and memories of the atrocities for the sake of their children and for their own sanity. For those that did speak about them, the children were too young to understand the weight of the history. And while the "Killing Fields" put Cambodia on the map to the world, these words have long become a dark cloud over the country and synonomous with Cambodia for decades, even to this day.
Fast-forward 30 years later, another Oscar nomination is upon this small kingdom. Yet the environment has changed. Cambodia has changed. We have changed. Thirty years later we are stronger than before. The country is no longer at war and is economically thriving. There is a new generation of leaders ready to take the helm and move Cambodia forward beyond the history of the Khmer Rouge. In Cambodia people can now watch the Oscars on a big screen TV in the security of their home or at a friend’s house. Restaurants and organizations like the Bophana Center are hosting Oscar viewing events all across town. Outside of the country, Cambodian communities in the diaspora have rebuilt their lives and have adapted to a new world. The diaspora are coming back to Cambodia and contributing to the country's development. Together we are all excited and cheering for the "Missing Picture".
The film has become an important catalyst to building bridges between the younger generation who is trying to understand a dark period in their country’s history and the older generation who seems ready to confront and heal from it. While the Killing Fields is a powerful story and continues to be an important tool to teach the younger generation the history of Cambodia, Khmer people seem ready to embrace another story—and ready to get past being known as the “Killing Fields.”
We were proud 30 years ago when the Killing Fields won an Academy Award but we were also still scared and shaken to celebrate. Win or lose, this nomination has reopened the conversation about this dark period of our history but this time it seems we are ready to have this conversation with the passage of time healing some wounds and with the younger generation ready to listen and learn.
The Missing Picture is Rithy Panh's story, but it is also my story, and the story of millions of Cambodians. It is one we have a right to tell, and should tell to the younger generation to help us move forward. As Rithy said in a recent interview with Al-Jazerra “It is our story. If you do not write your own story on the page, how can you turn over the page?” Win or lose, thank you Rithy Panh for telling your story, our story, and helping us to collectively heal and move forward as a nation.