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Mobile film screenings address survivors’ psychological trauma

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A young audience watches We Want U To Know at the Royal University of Phnom Penh during a screening organised by the mental health group Transcultural Psychosocial Organization.

In a novel approach to dealing with the psychological traumas left by the Khmer Rouge regime, the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) has been awarded a grant to organise “mobile screenings” of a film based on the experiences of survivors as a way of opening up discussions on the issue.

The film, We Want U To Know, was produced in 2009 by the Khmer Institute for Democracy (KID) and the International Center for Reconciliation.

It features scenes shot in Thnol Lok village in Takeo province and shows elders gathering to share their stories of the Khmer Rouge, a grandson asking his grandmother about the regime and a woman whose husband was taken away for execution.  

Victims of the Khmer Rouge regime participated in both the acting and production of the film, telling their stories of survival to the camera as well as holding cameras and microphones during shooting.

The film has received awards from the 2010 Addis Film Festival in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the 2011 RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film in London.

Thanks to a grant from the Movies That Matter Foundation, an initiative of international human rights organisation Amnesty International, TPO will now be able to take We Want U To Know on the road for “mobile screenings” in the provinces over the next seven months.

Youn Sarath, the project coordinator of TPO, said the screenings have already started in Takeo and Kandal provinces and Phnom Penh.

“The screenings target both older and younger people,” said Youn Sarath. “We want older people who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime to share their own story with the younger generation, so their children will know more about what happened in the past. We also discuss with people at the screening how they have dealt with their sad past so far in their daily life.”  

Most Cambodians older than 39 years old experienced starvation, punishment, or bad treatment under the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime, as well as losing family members.

These people can get easily overwhelmed or experience panic attacks when their past is recalled, said Sarath. For this reason, the TPO team explains to the audience in advance of the screenings how they can get help for their psychological problems during or after the screening.

“It probably hurts them to be reminded of their past. But to heal their psychological problems, we need to talk about their painful story,” he said.

Nou Va, who produced the film for KID in 2009, trained villagers in using equipment, organising scenes and coordinating production.

“At first, we just wanted to find out how they dealt with their trauma. People have rarely ever shared their story with others,” said Nou Va. “When they met us, they were happy to share and to perform their past stories. So we realised the film can play a role in psychological treatment,” he said, adding that the storytelling itself holds the potential for healing.

“When they are sad and they share their stories with others, they feel relief,” said Nou Va.

“At the same time, people who have the similar stories also feel better after listening. They feel that they are not alone.”

Lim Phanna, 22, a psychology student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh who attended a screening there last Friday, said that until now, she had a hard time believing stories people told her about life under the Khmer Rouge. But people in this film convinced her, she said.

As a future psychologist, Lim Phanna was not just struck by the history that people in the film narrated, but also  by the film itself, because it encourages discussion among viewers.  

“I think audiences will understand about our history more through this film,” said Lim Phanna.

“Also, other victims of the Khmer Rouge will learn to speak openly after they see people in this film talk, so they will feel released from their psychological problems.”

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