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Library of Congress to preserve film on Khmer Rouge

A screengrab from the 1990 film Samsara, which was selected this year to be added to the US National Film Registry. The movie is about Cambodia in the aftermath of genocide and civil war. Photograph supplied

Shoulder to shoulder with classics like 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and big-budget blockbusters like The Matrix, a 28-minute documentary about Cambodia’s emergence from years of war filtered through the lens of Buddhism has joined the select list of titles chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

The Library of Congress released its annual list of 25 culturally important films selected for the registry on Wednesday, extending the honour to Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, a documentary originally filmed in 1987 as part of filmmaker Ellen Bruno’s master’s thesis.  

“Described as poetic, heartbreaking and evocative, the film brings a humanistic perspective to the political chaos of Southeast Asia with a deliberate, reflective and sometimes dreamlike pace as it intertwines the mundane realities of daily life with the spiritual beliefs of the Khmer people,” reads the announcement from the National Film Registry, an arm of the Library of Congress established in 1989 to preserve American films that “represent important cultural, artistic and historic achievements in filmmaking”.

Bruno travelled into Cambodia’s interior to make Samsara after having worked in the Cambodian refugee camps along the Thai border in the 1980s.

Samsara’s selection for the registry was “an honour”, Bruno said yesterday, noting that the film’s impetus was a desire to let the rest of the world into the Khmer mindset.

“The world was getting the first glimpse of the depth of tragedy of the Khmer Rouge years,” she said in an email. “Day after day, our Khmer friends and co-workers revealed yet another level of horror, and we were stunned by their ability to persevere in the wake of this devastation.”

“From those first days on the border, I strove to understand what allowed the majority of Khmer to survive with their minds and spirits intact ... and I felt that they, as survivors, had much to teach the rest of the world about the how to make sense of such suffering,” she added.  

Samsara won a Special Jury Recognition at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, the year the film premiered. On its website, the Sundance Institute calls the film “a gripping, visually beautiful and personal view of a country in deep turmoil”.

Including Wednesday’s additions, the National Film Registry contains 600 films, each nominated by members of the public, and each more than 10 years old, and each deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

Other films that have been chosen for preservation include Casablanca, The Godfather and Vertigo.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart White at



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