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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sihanouk frame by frame

Sihanouk frame by frame

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King Father Norodom Sihanouk (R) awards filmmaker James Gerrand with a cultural medal at the Cambodian Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Photograph supplied

King Father Norodom Sihanouk (R) awards filmmaker James Gerrand with a cultural medal at the Cambodian Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Photograph supplied

In 1967 a naïve 25-year-old Australian filmmaker called James Gerrand was blissfully paddling a canoe from Laos to Cambodia, scarcely aware of the violent realities he was about to be confronted with.

But when the eccentric-looking bearded man, with a monkey in his canoe, arrived in Cambodia, he soon became vividly aware of the intense paranoia that had gripped the country.


Constantly finding himself under arrest and having to negotiate his freedom with provincial governors, Gerrand was not even aware that Samlaut Rebellion had just erupted, one of the early signs of serious unrest in the countryside under Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Cambodia.


Gerrand had paddled straight into the escalating conflict between the North Vietnamese communists hauling supplies along the famous Ho Chi Minh trail inside Cambodia, and the United States, which saw the young prince negotiating a tricky path of neutrality between the United States and North Vietnam.

The strategies Sihanouk employed to stave off these antagonists enthralled Gerrand and kick-started a fascination that would lead him to spend decades documenting the then prince’s life and interview him repeatedly between 1982 and the mid 1990s.

In an interview with the Post’s David Boyle, Gerrand recounts his time with the “last god-king.”

Can you start by telling how you became compelled to make a film about Norodom Sihanouk?

I first came here back in the 60s – 67, 68, paddling a canoe down the Mekong from Laos to Cambodia, and it’s important, because at that time Sihanouk was autocratically in charge here. He really was the dominant political figure. And I found a great sense of paranoia: wherever I went paddling down the Mekong I kept getting arrested and taken to the provincial governor and tried to explain myself because I was looking pretty eccentric, I had a big beard and was travelling with a monkey and I was completely naïve because at that time I didn’t realize there had been a big uprising at Samlaut against Sihanouk.

And more importantly, the Vietcong were trafficking arms and men through Cambodia along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trails to South Vietnam in preparation for the Tet Offensive, the famous turning point for the Vietnam War. All of that is backdrop to the situation I was in. All of the people I met were paranoid, very edgy, there were secret police, and that was my first feeling about the Sihanouk regime.

These were the later days of Sihanouk’s time in power. It’s important to realise, well, from my point of view, to have a feel for what it was like in those last years of Sihanouk’s rule. Then I made a first film in Laos; I came back and I did a sequel to that film in Laos focusing on Cambodia.

At that stage Cambodia had suddenly been plunged into war: that was after 1970, the turning point for Cambodia. Sihanouk had ruled up until March 1970 and at that point his Prime Minister Lon Nol had him voted out of office while he was out of the country, and that invited the war into Cambodia. Sihanouk was stuck trying to kick this little country out of the war that was raging in Vietnam, and he insisted on being neutral. Not joining the anti-communist side of American patronage, but trying to remain neutral, and it was a real juggling game.

However, he saw that in the long run that China would be the only one that was powerful enough to restrain Cambodia’s two neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand. America didn’t want compromise, they said “it’s only by being with us that you’ll get protection.” Sihanouk could see beyond that and said “China will be our protector.” This made it very difficult for him to stay in power; he was jumping all the time, he was being undermined.

The biggest thing was that he cut off American aid, because he could see what American aid could do. If you didn’t follow American rules you’re likely to be kicked out of power. So he’d seen that happen next door in Vietnam when Ngo Dinh Dien was kicked out of power and assassinated.

It’s important to understand what Sihanouk was about, and although my first impression was of a country that was on edge - people here were very jumpy, it was a police state in many respects and not comfortable for a foreigner like myself - however I saw the rationale of what Sihanouk was doing, and I admired it.

I thought, this guy, he looks like a playboy, a flibbertigibbet, but I admired him because he had the guts to stand alone and see what others could not see; that China, which was a pariah country in those days, back in the 50s and 60s, the rest of the world, even the Soviet Union, didn’t trust China, but Sihanouk saw a longer-term view of where China was going to be in the world, and it proved to be correct, and it proved to be correct that China was going to be that guarantor, the best chance of being a guarantor of Cambodia’s neutrality.

I think that’s proved to be the case, and it’s certainly the way Samdech Hun Sen is also playing the politics of the region – he realises that there’s a lot to be learnt from Sihanouk’s approach and he’s balanced things off. Yes, he’s indebted to Vietnam for overthrowing Pol Pot and eventually installing him in power, but he’s trying to balance off the influence of Vietnam by turning to China, following the same tactics.

This is my admiration for what Sihanouk did and his far-sightedness. So my sort of turning to Cambodia had an academic, well, a sort of logic, to why I admired it. But coming here during the war was something else again, that was a very big emotional impact – to see a naïve nation of people who were suddenly plunged into war, totally unrealistic about their expectations of what they could do - was emotionally a very extraordinary event in my life.

So you saw at that stage Cambodians mobilize to fight against the “Thmil”: “Thmil” were the non-believers, those who were not proper Buddhists, and that was code for the Vietnamese communists, and they would jump onto trucks, onto Pepsi Cola wagons, and they would go off to war singing and shouting with bravado, and then so many were just cut down – their ideas of war were like chivalry and something from another age.
They weren’t guerrilla fighters, or able to be anti-guerrilla fighters, so to see that left a huge emotional impact on anyone who was here who saw it. To see the naivety of these people and the corruption of their leaders: their blind corruption. These were people who were sending young naïve people into battle while taking their money for themselves, the foreign aid that was coming in to support their side.

From there, how did you manage to secure your interview with Sihanouk before other people?

After the Pol Pot regime was overthrown, I was back, in the very last days of the Pol Pot regime. I managed to come in on a flight on the first of January 1979. While Pol Pot was still theoretically still in power in Phnom Penh there was one flight that took us into Siem Reap, and the place was virtually deserted. About five days or six days later the Vietnamese had taken control of all of Cambodia and kicked out the Pol Pot regime.
 
Why was anyone at that stage flying into Cambodia?

Pol Pot at that stage had struck a bargain with a merchant banker in Bangkok and he wanted some publicity, hoping to save the day. There were two flights that went in. A great friend, Neil Davis, was on the first one and called me and said “get on the second flight” and I did.
And the Pol Pot idea was apparently a last-ditch stand that he might get some sympathy from the west. And so we came in, and there was nothing much to see, but I can say that I was there in the last days of the Pol Pot regime. But what you could see was that over the months that followed the Vietnamese were unable to really feed the people that they had liberated from Pol Pot.

There was anarchy in the streets and it was a desperate situation. There was also a resistance brewing. There was the rump of the Khmer Rouge fighting back and also the anti-communist resistance that built up. Eventually Sihanouk came in as the head of the coalition of these resistance forces that wanted the Vietnamese out of Cambodia.

When I heard that Sihanouk was coming back I thought, I’ll write to him and ask for an interview. And I suppose it’s pot luck, but I had made a film back during the war years in 1971–72: I made a documentary history in its simple form which was sympathetic to Sihanouk’s point of view, it was called Khmer Khmer. It’s not meant to be an apology; it’s meant to be a rationale against the American point of view that he was a fool and doing things against Cambodia’s best interest. And the Americans wanted him to be part of the anti-communist alliance which in the long run would have been disastrous - well it was disastrous anyway - but it [siding with America] wasn’t a solution.

So my film was putting a different point of view to the prevailing one. The prevailing one was that it was all about communism versus anti-communism. From Cambodia’s point of view, it was a longer-term situation of two powerful nations as neighbours, Vietnam on one side, Thailand on the other, squeezing Cambodia in the middle. They needed a countervailing power and that was China as far as Sihanouk was concerned, so that was the argument of the film I made in 1971 called Khmer Khmer.

Perhaps because of that Sihanouk thought either I was naïve enough or I saw his point of view clearly enough that he would grant me an interview. And so I had a 45-minute interview which turned out to be extremely valuable, and that formed the keel, the main binding point, the main theme through another history film I made called the Prince and the Prophecy, followed by Cambodia Kampuchea - a two-part film.

And that was built around the prophecy called the Puth Tumneay. The Puth Tumneay was a prophecy made by Buddhist monks back in the 1800s and most Cambodians are very, very aware of it, because it was uncannily fulfilled in many respects – that the cities would be empty and the shrimp from the ocean would go up to the top of the mountains. And this was symbolically an idea that the little people, the powerless people, would suddenly overthrow the people at the top of the hierarchy: the notional Hindu hierarchy of order within the universe and within society.

So Sihanouk understood this prophecy and the film was built around that and the first question I put to him was about that prophecy and through his answers it was revealed that he had some sense, some acceptance of the superstition that surrounds such prophecies. In subsequent years he kept saying that “I don’t go along with these superstitions but my mother and my wife, they believe in these things”: he was such a charming character.

His mother was very superstitious, and before anything would happen she would call on the royal fortune-tellers, and Sihanouk denied to me that he called on fortune-tellers - I believe he did - but maybe for the westerner he didn’t like to advertise that. “Oh, but my wife, she does”. And this was part of his charm, he was the most charming man.

Could you explain this charm?
You know, there are two sides to charmers, there are people that charm by flattery, and Cambodians are wonderful at praising you, giving you praise and flattery that you don’t deserve, that you couldn’t possibly deserve, and I think Sihanouk was able to do that with not only diplomats and other politicians, but also with journalists.

Sihanouk had an understanding of the press, he didn’t like to be criticised, but he knew how he could try and get his way with the foreign press, especially, and to use the press for his own ends - which all good leaders have to do. And he was quite experienced and quite capable of using the press for his own political interests.

Yes, and I imagine to an extent he just enjoyed the game.

Oh, you are so right. Yes, he enjoyed the game.

When you get an interview with a world leader you don’t want to blow it: how carefully did you have to tread with your line of questioning, if at all?

Well, you do prepare questions, but I am very naïve so I am cautious. I guess it’s best to be cautious for the first two thirds of the interview, and Sihanouk of course, like any other world leader worth his salt, is waiting for the curly questions at the end. So you’re building up to save those curly questions, the more telling questions, after you’ve got rid of the more bread-and-butter questions that are not going to offend him or antagonise [him].

[Sihanouk] was inclined to, if you gave him enough rope … he didn’t hang himself, but he revealed a lot more than I would have expected.

At one stage, I was amazed about what he said about his father [Prince Norodom Suramarit], and about his wife [Queen mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk]. He loved his wife, I have no doubt about that, but he would say things about his wife, his mother [Princess Sisowath Kossamak], which were very revealing and not something you would expect a leader to be so open about. He would say: “I love my father but…” He virtually said: “but how could I respect him? He was a playboy.”

It was very endearing, but it’s another side, and some people who were under Sihanouk would feel his wrath. His family could feel his wrath and his weapon was often humiliation. He made a couple of films explicitly to criticise his own family, especially [Prince Norodom] Ranariddh.

And his weapon was often humiliation. There was a press conference at the palace where I remember he humiliated a couple of his sons who stepped out of line. They were too ambitious for their own good and their ambition was transparent, and Sihanouk would pull them down a peg in public. So this was another side to the last god-king.

He never used military means, but it was strange to see people who were close to him and were very loyal to him, like the father of [Tioulong] Samura, [Sam] Rainsy’s wife, appeared in one of his films, and he plays a humiliating role in some respects. He did the same with a film - he had actual people who were in the FUNCINPEC party, who were holding positions in the government, they were in a coalition government with the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party]; governors of provinces, a secretary of state for information, one for culture.
And they were invited to take a role in Sihanouk’s film, which is a satire about corruption in some mythical island state, like a banana republic. And these people are actually in positions in a real government, playing a role receiving the corruption on a silver platter (laughs) … this guy is incorrigible and wonderful and it’s sort of a living form of rebuke, but in the nicest possible way, and nobody would decline to play the role when they were invited to.

Why?

Because the aura, his status, the god-king status. It’s strange; he didn’t have any weapons, he wasn’t in the position to imprison or anything like that, but he had the power of personality and the aura of status. It was an extraordinary combination. There aren’t a lot of people on the earth that exercise that sort of power without a military or a ballot box or police military. His only power was his personality and the aura that attaches to the god-king. Yeah, that was how it worked.
 
What was the question that got you the response you were looking for?

I wanted to see if he had any mistakes or regrets so the question was phrased: “If you had your life over again would you want to do anything differently?”
It was actually all in the facial response and he went through sort of half-a-dozen emotions and they all came through on his face. But what he said was “you should ask Lon Nol if he would like to overthrow Sihanouk and destroy Cambodia,” - that’s a paraphrase of what he said. But what mattered was those fantastic emotions, the range of emotions: he went through indignation, sadness, guilt, I don’t know, all those things, and that said so much about this man that had so much passion.

After you finished your film did he invite you to go back to catch up?

Yes he did. I didn’t like to ask him what he thought of my films, but I think his action was that he always welcomed me, [which] was still very flattering. And you know, at different times I’ve been with him and the queen mother in public ceremonies where, for example, when he had a Korean bodyguard unit protecting him; they were hell for filmmakers; they would bump you out of the way, just clear cut, but he would just sort of wave them aside to allow me to come in to get the reasonable vantage point from a filmmaking point of view.

He understood the toils of filmmaking.

Yes, and he could ignore it when it suited him too. I mean, the queen mother’s the same. She’s sensitive to that. It was very frustrating and they don’t have to be Korean bodyguards, there are quite enough within the present government’s crowd control police.

All sorts of opinions of Sihanouk have emerged since his passing, ranging from those that are glowing to the downright acerbic. What sort of impression would you like to leave of him now that he’s passed?

I hope that in time Cambodians will respect what he did for them in the 50s and 60s. He carried a lot of criticism for aligning himself with what turned out to be Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, after his overthrow. And the question there is: was it in the national interest in his idea of what was best for Cambodia, or was it revenge for the humiliation of being overthrown by Lon Nol?

That will never be resolved. He said it was not vengeance. But I think that was the turning point in Cambodians’ perceptions of his place in history and there will be arguments about that for a long time.

I hope that people will have some understanding of what he tried to do, what he did do for Cambodia during the 50s and 60s, and the integrity of his idea of independence for Cambodia. It wasn’t total independence, but he knew he could trust China and China would not demand very much in return, unlike the Americans. And he understood that China would always be there where the Americans would not. It proved to be correct.

So there is a lot to credit Sihanouk for the 50s and 60s. I can understand, I think anyone worth their salt would have joined the resistance to Lon Nol at that time in 1970. And many did, including Samdech Hun Sen. Hun Sen agrees that he went to the resistance because of Sihanouk’s call on radio. And I think it was the worthwhile thing to do.

However, Sihanouk didn’t anticipate, and nobody that I knew during the time of the war, anticipated the bloodiness and unnatural brutality of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and certainly Sihanouk had misread that. But I don’t think he can be accused of being responsible for the bloodshed of Pol Pot. In that sense he has been a scapegoat. I’m not a Cambodian and I don’t have the right to have opinions, or strong opinions … but I do.

And so I’d hope that there’s some understanding of his position, of why he took this position.

It’s all very well to say that he would have been better to retire to the Riviera or to China. He did retire to China, but he gave support to the resistance, and he’s still criticised for that. In his last years he backed off from his criticism of the government that followed the Paris Peace Accords, because I think he had loyalty and personal responsibility to his wife and particularly to his son, his Majesty King Sihamoni, and his hopes for the survival for the monarchy. I imagine that was his thinking, but I don’t know that for sure.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com

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