Cambodian Dreams: Hope and hardship in the 1980s

Cambodian Dreams: Hope and hardship in the 1980s


Stanley Harper started work on his movie Cambodian Dreams 20 years ago. It hits the big screen in Phnom Penh this month.

Twenty years after he began work on it, Stanley Harper’s

movie Cambodian Dreams is ready for

release March 27 at Chaktomuk Theatre in a ceremony to be presided over by

Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

The film documents the parallel stories of rural farm grandmother

Yan Chheing’s struggle in a refugee camp in Thailand,

and her daughter’s hard life in the rice fields of Cambodia. It will air on all

national TV stations simultaneously.

At the Council of Ministers last week, Sok An honored Chheing,

the unlikely film star, praising her for her love of Cambodia and her unwavering work

ethic portrayed in the film.

The spirited grandmother told the ministers she had refused

to "sit and grow fat” in the refugee camp because it was better to always work

hard whatever the circumstances.

On screen, Chheing often voices her frustration at having to

live like a "parasite” on handouts at the refugee camp and not being able to

work to earn a living. She desperately tries to ingrain this work ethic into

her grandchildren through both her stories of the past and her example during

their many years as refugees, expressing a fear they would "be content with

life in the camps because it is all they know.”

Although he had met Chheing two years earlier while working

on a BBC documentary,  Harper, a New

Zealander who is a long time resident of 
Phnom Penh, said he began work on Cambodian

Dreams in 1988.

The filming took place in two locations – site 2 refugee

camp about 50km from the Thai border town of Poipet and a village near Battambang where

Chheing’s daughter Tha struggled to work a small piece of land with her husband

and children.

During the 1980s hostilities ran high between those who fled

to refugee camps and rural farmers who stayed behind to rebuild the country

despite the hardships.


Yan Chheing, whose life the Cambodian Dreams film is based around, receives gifts from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An during a ceremony at the Council of Ministers, Phnom Penh, on February 25.


Harper cited the jealousy and animosity felt toward those

who seemed to be living an easy life in the camps with food, clothing, shelter

and medicine.

Meanwhile, in the camps, families struggled to find meaning

to their lives and longed to return to their homeland.

Harper said his intention was to document both sides to promote

understanding and reconciliation, firstly between this particular family and

then throughout the country by telling their story.

"I don’t know what impact the film will have but it is time

for Khmer people to realize they are one people and need to help each other and

be proud of who they are,” he said. "We need to work together. This is my


In a review for the Los

Angeles Times, film critic David Thomas described the film as "a

heartbreaking yet understated study of individuals longing for their roots and

craving the dignity of self sufficiency.”

Chheing who now lives in Battambang, said she was very happy

and excited to be invited by Sok An for the meeting.

"I never thought my life could be as good as this,” she


Chheing said when she was first approached by Harper about

the film she agreed because she thought it would be fun.

"He told me to wait and see,” Chheing said. "I was shocked

when I came here and saw myself in the film yesterday. I never thought it would

be such a big deal.”

Following a

discussion among government officials and those involved in the film’s

production, Sok An presented Chheing with gifts of rice, noodles, bedding and



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