Li-Da Kruger, 39, was only a baby when she was flown out of Cambodia by the last American helicopter in 1975, just before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and was subsequently adopted in the UK. She was told that her mother had died and her father had been badly wounded, but was never sure how much to believe. A professional filmmaker, she returned to Cambodia aged 27 to make a documentary about her heritage. This year, she has returned to the Kingdom to make another film. She talks to Emily Wight about why she plans to tell the story of the Cambodian diaspora through dance.
You grew up in the UK. When did you first return to Cambodia?
When I was on holiday in Thailand aged 20, I went back for just five days. It was in 1994, when the Khmer Rouge was still in the jungle, and just after three hostages had been killed. I went around Angkor Wat for four hours and didn’t meet one foreigner – can you imagine?
Can you tell me about the process of making your first documentary, Belonging?
I always wanted to learn about my cultural heritage and my roots, and whether or not I had a biological family still alive. To be honest I didn’t think they would be. But none of my friends growing up had a clue about Cambodia, they didn’t even know where it was – of course Britain doesn’t have any historical ties with Cambodia, and there was very little information about it at the time. The documentary was to look for family, but it was also to discover what Cambodia meant for me.
Did you find out anything about your family?
No. But I met a woman who thought I might be her daughter, and we both kind of played out this mother and daughter relationship. She invited me back to her village to say “this might be my daughter”, and for me it felt like meeting someone who might be my mother would – a complete stranger, with completely strange customs. She dressed me up in traditional outfits, and lots of monks came along. I left with a DNA sample and found out she wasn’t my mother. But when I went back to tell her in person, I still felt emotionally loyal to her.
What did you discover about your identity?
When I’d made the journey and spent two and a half months here and met Cambodians, I realised I was totally English. The Cambodian culture was so foreign to me. I grew up with South African expat parents in England and lived in a manor house and had a very charmed lifestyle. Having had no influences from Cambodia before, it was a huge shock in every single way possible. I didn’t really feel connected.
What will your new film focus on?
My new film is about the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, a troupe of child dancers up in Siem Reap who are beneficiaries of the Nginn Karet Foundation, a charity of which I’m a trustee. Whenever I saw these children dance it was truly amazing – they dance with such discipline and dignity and elegance. In September last year, they went on tour to the US, on a mission to form a bridge for Cambodian-Americans to the motherland during the Pchum Ben holiday, which is the month of remembrance of ancestors. I was attracted to this because of my displacement as a Cambodian in the UK, and I decided to make a film about the dancers, their tour and those who watched it. However, I still need to secure funding for it.
Why did you decide to make this film?
As well as my own personal connection, I wanted to make a connection between the refugees who went to America a generation ago and the children going now, as part of the tour. They’re all survivors of the genocide, but they’ve gone in different paths. Obviously, the children represent the future of Cambodia in that sense.
You mentioned that the UK doesn’t have any historical ties to Cambodia. How did it feel to see such a huge Cambodian community living in the US?
I wanted to meet fellow displaced people. American-Cambodians would start to cry and say, “I thought I’d never hear this music again!” It reminded them of their culture, and the country they missed. The children danced in the local Cambodian temples in front of Buddha. There was a real connection, and that inspired me.