American filmmaker Robert H Lieberman’s documentary Angkor Awakens premieres in Cambodia tonight, with a set of screenings scheduled at Phnom Penh’s Meta House this week.
Lieberman, a physicist and professor at Cornell University in the US, spent four years making the film. He was interested in exploring the generational effects of genocide, as well as the notion of baksbat [broken courage], which many psychologists might label as PTSD.
In the process Lieberman interviewed more than 140 individuals, including a two-hour sit-down with Prime Minister Hun Sen in New York. Just a few minutes of footage from the interview appear in the final cut – but don’t expect controversy.
Despite the political star power, the director says he didn’t want to make a film focused on the Cambodian government, or the political scene. “We didn’t want to make a political film,” he said yesterday. “I don’t think this film is inflammatory. I think this film is rather balanced.”
Nonetheless Lieberman, who has held test screenings of the film in Ithaca, New York, and Beijing said that he encountered some barriers to organising a screening of Angkor Awakens in Phnom Penh. Meta House was the only venue to give him the go-ahead, he added.
The director says the film is “intended for a Western audience” and its focus is ultimately on Cambodia’s future: the youth. It features vibrant footage of young people engaged in action, art and protest – filmed during demonstrations in 2014.
But for close Cambodia watchers, Angkor Awakens – which ends on a note of optimism – might seem a touch out of step with reality. Production finished just over a year ago, and many specifics (the self-imposed exile of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, for example) are glossed over or not mentioned at all.
For his part, Lieberman says he wanted the film to be timeless. “It’s very tricky business trying to make a film in a shifting political situation,” he explained. “We’re not news reporters. We’re very careful not to date a film.”
The director’s 2012 film They Call It Myanmar, which he shot clandestinely over two years, received global plaudits, and he hopes the same for his new project. Angkor Awakens will be screened for the foreign press in Bangkok next month, and will premiere in the US in April.
Angkor Awakens premieres tonight at 7pm at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, followed by a discussion with the director. The film will also be screened again on Wednesday and Thursday at 7pm. Admission is free.