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The long search for justice

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IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Beth Pielert's Out of the Poison Tree chronicles one woman's journey of self-discovery in pursuit of a beloved father and the reasons behind the tragedy that was Democratic Kampuchea.

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In 1977, director and producer Beth Pielert was sitting in a Hebrew school class reading about Anne Frank, who perished in the Holocaust, and was told never to let anything like the Nazi's "Final Solution" happen again. Meanwhile, 21,000 kilometres away, genocide was happening in Cambodia.

Years later, Pielert met a former Nuremberg prosecutor who sparked a theme for a film - people who were creators of justice after a great injustice had occurred.

Pielert's film Out of the Poison Tree follows Thida Buth Mam and her sisters back to Cambodia to find out more about the disappearance of their father under the Khmer Rouge and to hear first-hand from Cambodians about the necessity for justice and forgiveness.

As the Khmer Rouge tribunal readies itself for the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, this film is aptly timed for the voice it gives to ordinary Cambodians and to well-known figures like Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), or Aki Ra, an orphan raised by the Khmer Rouge who now runs the Land mine Museum.

The first screening in Cambodia of Out of the Poison Tree will take place at Meta House on Saturday at 6:30pm.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

Beth Pielert: I was visiting family on the East Coast [of the US] and I shared a ride to the airport with Henry King Jr, a former junior prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Meeting Henry sparked an idea for a film about "right livelihood", where people who were exposed to great injustices like the Holocaust worked in careers that helped bring justice to the victims.

In the summer of 1999 ... my mother handed me an article from The New York Times that featured Craig Etcheson, [the co-creator of DC-Cam] and his work at the Yale Cambodian Genocide Studies Program.

I was able to meet Craig and interview him on camera. I learned more details about the Khmer Rouge regime and the long-overdue need for justice. 

In 2000, I flew to Cambodia with my stepfather Robb, and together we  interviewed survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime to better understand their desire for justice and what they had lived through.

Personal stories of healing and reconciliation for survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime were not yet prevalent at that time. I began production Out of the Poison Tree in earnest in 2001.

How did you and Thida meet?

BP: I met Thida Buth Mam in 2002. ... By [that time] I had already shot interviews with Youk Chhang and Aki Ra, in addition to a former Khmer Rouge soldier and smaller interviews, all of which made up the framework for the film. But I was in need of a contemporary component, an arc that could join stories from the past with the present. I always thought this would be the trial but ... that was taking forever to materialise.

I met with Thida, who had lived through the regime and who, I thought, could potentially serve as a consultant. Thida and her incredible family were so generous with their time and stories that Thida went from consultant, to translator to associate producer of the film.

When Thida phoned one day in late 2004 to say that she and her sisters were returning to Cambodia specifically to look for her father Buth Choen, I requested that I film her and their journey, and they generously agreed.

What do you hope people will take from the film?

Thida Buth Mam: For me, I want to tell the Khmer Rouge genocide story. If we look into the reasons the Khmer Rouge had, which led to the genocide, they were all reasonable, especially when a nation is under dictatorship or oppression. It can happen again, especially in Cambodia.

 

Cambodians must know themselves well to prevent this from ever happening again. Also, I was hoping to give a voice to the victims.... Cambodians should be fearful of the return of the Khmer Rouge the same way the Americans are afraid of another Vietnam War.

BP: There are several things that I hope people take away from the film, the foremost being  understanding - understanding what it was like to be a country like Cambodia caught in the middle during a time of great political tension between the US and Vietnam.

The fallout from economic stress caused by the US bombings, starvation and military dominance helped enable the Khmer Rouge to gain power.

I also wanted to provide a sense of what it was like from the victims' point of view and how this unquenched justice spans the generations.

I wanted to provide a sense of the "choice-less choice" position many of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge regime were in - for many of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, it was truly kill or be killed.

Thida, is the search for your father now complete? What did your mum think of the film?

TBM: No, I decided to stop. I don't think I can deal with finding out more details. Every time we found out a small fact about my father's fate, I went crazy in my head and in my heart. I think it is best that I don't know. Basically, I went searching for the truth about my father and found the truth about me. As for my mum, she is like me. She cannot handle the truth. She discouraged us from going and never asks me about it.

What are your hopes for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal?

TBM: [That] the Khmer Rouge admit to their crime, they apologise, they explain to us why they did what they did, they tell us what other countries were behind this - China? Vietnam? Thailand? That this practice of law or justice will make the Cambodian judiciary system better.

Also, acknowledgment of a brutal time in Cambodia and that my generation feel that we have done our best and that the genocide story stays alive.

BP: In many ways I wish that the Khmer Rouge tribunal had been created in the image of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Granting amnesty to the perpetrators may have expedited the Trial and yielded more details about the "how and whys" of the Khmer Rouge.

Finally, Thida, will you return to live in Cambodia?

TBM: I have bought some land where I plan to build a home when I can afford it. I hope, in my retirement, to live in Cambodia most of the time. I hope I can contribute back to my homeland.

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