Movies and Books

Cambodia is increasing in tourist and visitor numbers every year. With this comes an increase in the coverage Cambodia receives globally through the various media channels. Below is a list of some of the best movies and books to be written about Cambodia in recent times.

Recommended Movies

The recent trauma of Cambodia has been visited over and over again in both literature and film. Roland Joffe’s 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, chronicles the lives of foreign journalists covering the fall of Phnom Penh and the subsequent experiences of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the darkest of periods. It is an excellent introduction to the recent history, looking at it through both Cambodian and Western eyes.

These days, Cambodia is a tempting backdrop for filmmakers from both Asia and farther away. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie used Angkor as a set. In 2002, Matt Dillon made the indescribably complicated City of Ghosts, using locations from all around the country. The plot may be convoluted but the cinematography is superb, and the film used many real local characters in cameos, including Michael Hayes, the then-editor (and founder) of The Phnom Penh Post. Cambodian director Rithy Pran made an extraordinary documentary about Tuol Sleng, the improvised Khmer Rouge prison where thousands upon thousands of people were tortured and killed.

In S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, one of the only survivors of Toul Sleng, the artist Vann Nath, actually confronts the prison guards who did the torture and killing. It is moving beyond belief as with immense dignity Vann Nath questions the men who did these inhuman and terrible things to him and thousands of others. There are no real conclusions, but it is an astounding and historic marker.

In the early morning of Monday 17th September, it was announced that Angelina Jolie’s first movie, “First They Killed My Father,” will be competing for the best foreign film award for Cambodia at the prestigious Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, the United States in 2018.This is the first time that the famous American director of the film, Angelina Jolie, will be Cambodia’s representative to win this Oscars and is also the 6th Oscar nomination for a Cambodian movie.

The last movie that Cambodia chose to enter at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category was the Cambodian-French Film Production File In 2013, Rithy Panh, titled “The Missing Picture.”

Angelina Jolie made the point that it was “significant” for both her and the Cambodian people who have been involved in the film production. She says that she has worked with Cambodian artists to bring the story to the world and that it was a great and virtuous experience.

Jolie has held dual U.S./Cambodian nationality since 2005. The project, which she is clearly passionate about, was made completely in Cambodia with an all-local cast.

The Khmer Times recently said: “film has been hailed as a technical milestone for the local film industry, with the production employing thousands of Cambodian artisans, technicians and extras.”

Recommended Literature

There are many books about Cambodia, plenty of them touching on the years of turmoil. Jon Swain’s River of Time is a very affecting story of his lifelong love affair with Indochina and his journalistic experiences in covering the Cambodian story.

Nic Dunlop, a British photographer who quite by chance discovered the Khmer Rouge torturer in chief, known as Duch, writes a compelling story about that incident but touches on many of the wider implications in The Lost Executioner. It is beautifully written and a page-turner. One of the best biographies of Pol Pot is by Philip Short and is called Pol Pot.

The Pol Pot Regime by Ben Kiernan is a very academic but very inclusive historical analysis of the whole era and what made the Khmer Rouge tick. Francois Bizot was a French ethnographer who was captured and imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge in 1973. His account, The Gate, gives some insight into their maniacal thinking in the days before they took Phnom Penh.

When the War Was Over is an immensely thoughtful account of the Khmer Rouge years by Washington Post journalist Elizabeth Becker. She covered Cambodia from the early ’70s on and actually toured Democratic Kampuchea and interviewed Pol Pot when he was still in power.

Lost Goddesses: Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History by Dr. Trudy Jacobsen is the first study to address the place of women in Cambodian history. It is a narrative and thoughtful tour de force, revising accepted perspectives on history and posing deep questions about modern Cambodia in the light of history reexamined.

There has also been a series of autobiographies by Khmer Rouge survivors who were children at the time. Stay Alive My Son by Pin Yathey, First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, and When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him are among them, but there are many others. Angkor by George Coedes is the premier read on the temples of Angkor. Khmer: The Lost Empire of Cambodia by Thierry Zephir makes a good guide and intro for a visit to Angkor.

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