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Upheaval of life blamed on Apsara

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Helene Bizot’s memories of the Khmer Rouge period are set to be made into a film based on her father’s book The Gate. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN

Life is hectic for Helene Bizot, daughter of bestselling French author Francois Bizot who wrote the seminal work, The Gate.

She is busy keeping abreast of negotiations for the filming of her father’s story by a Paris-based movie company, much of which takes place in the Siem Reap village of Srah Srang where she was born.

But at the same time she is involved in a war of words with the Apsara Authority who she has accused of waging a sustained campaign of harassment against the inhabitants of the village which will soon feature in key scenes in the film adaptation of The Gate.

Furthermore, she stresses to 7Days that she herself has never been involved in movies in France, even though she is continually confused with a French actress of the same name.

Type in to Google “Helene Bizot” and dozens of entries appear about Hélène Bizot the French actress.

“No, that’s not me,” the Cambodian Helene Bizot stresses. “There is an actress by the same name and the confusion happens a lot.

“Part of the reason is that

I have a child with an actor, Gerard Depardieu. But I’m not an actress, I design jewellery.”

That she has a son with Gerard Depardieu only causes further confusion about her identity because many online fan sites and entertainment blogs, as well as Wikipedia, list the actress Hélène Bizot as the mother of Depardieu’s child.

But the Cambodian Helene Bizot who lives in Phnom Penh is too busy to explore the confusions in detail.

Instead she reverts to her campaign to help save her home village, telling 7Days that the inhabitants of Srah Srang, which sits inside the Angkor Archaeological Park, and a neighbouring village, Rohal, have been subject to a 10-year campaign of intimidation from Apsara officials responsible for conserving the nearby Banteay Kdei temple.

“It’s a constant stream of harassment. Any new housing construction in the village has been banned, monks from nearby temples are prevented from accessing the village and land owned by villagers has been seized by Apsara,” she claims.

According to Bizot, the most recent incident involved the destruction of a fence owned by her mother which was demolished by Apsara employees.

Bizot says that many of the rules laid down by Apsara are unnecessarily draconian and prevent villagers from carrying on with ordinary life.

“People are prevented from collecting firewood locally, and have to walk 15 kilometres in order to fetch wood to cook with. If they get married they are prevented from moving out of their parents’ house and building a new home in the village. Instead they have to move away.”

Bizot tells 7Days that she was born in Srah Srang in 1968 after her father Francois moved to Siem Reap to work for the Angkor Conservation Office three years earlier.

“My family lived in Srah Srang before we evacuated to Phnom Penh when the area was being bombed. I’ve returned to visit at least once a year since 1991.”

The family moved from the village following Francois’s release from captivity by the Khmer Rouge who held him on suspicion of being a CIA agent for two months in late 1975.

Francois made history as the first westerner to be released from captivity by the Khmer Rouge, a fact he attributed to forging an unlikely friendship with the commander of his prison camp, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, who would later go on to take charge of  Tuol Sleng prison and who is currently standing trial at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh.

Bizot confirms that her father’s account of his experiences, published in the 2003 book, The Gate, is in negotiations to be adapted into a movie.

Sources told 7Days the story in the film will be told from her perspective as a child, but declined to discuss this further.

Because key scenes will be set in Srah Srang, Bizot says there is a likelihood the film itself will be partially shot in Cambodia.

“It’s relatively inexpensive, you have great scenery to use, and this is the place where the events happened.”

Since leaving Cambodia in 1975, Bizot returned to visit Srah Srang in 1991, the first of several trips including a 2000 visit with Francois when he returned to the site of his former prison camp near Omleang.

She says because of the ongoing contact she has with her former neighbours in Srah Srang and the likelihood of the village being a setting for the movie,  it is impossible for her to ignore the villagers’ treatment by Apsara.

“It pains me to see [the] way people have been treated. They just want to live a normal life and what Apsara is doing is making that impossible.”

No one from Apsara was available to comment, and villagers from both Srah Srang and Rohal expressed mixed feelings about Apsara’s activities.

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