Hero, playboy, poet or visionary leader? These are just some of the epithets that spring to mind when examining the life of former King Norodom Sihanouk.
The King Father is famous for making scores of films as a writer and director – yet few films have been made about the man and his controversial reign.
Now Meta House is screening two films by Australian filmmaker James Gerrand which examine Sihanouk’s role in Cambodian politics and history.
The first of these 1980s films, The Prince and the Prophecy, explores Sihanouk’s role in leading Cambodia to independence from French rule and the political turmoil of the early 1970s.
In a lengthy interview, Sihanouk touches on historic tensions between Vietnam and Cambodia.
“The Vietnamese are very expansionist, militarist,” he says.
“They are conquerors. Cambodians, we are pacifist. We are very uncomfortable with such a people.”
As a young prince, Sihanouk was characterised by the foreign press as a playboy: fond of women, expensive cars and fine cuisine. But these passions were put aside when, as King, he set about the serious business of developing Cambodia.
Garrand asserts that, on the international stage, Sihanouk was considered “a master of publicity and diplomatic flair”.
Under his reign, a major education strategy emerged, with universities and schools opening across the country, accompanied by a surge in enrolments.
The film delves into the political manoeuvrings of the late 60s and early 70s, when figures such as Khieu Samphan and Lon Nol rose to prominence.
After Sihanouk was overthrown by the US-backed Lon Nol coup in 1970, he fled to China.
He was convicted in absentia of treason and sentenced to death. The film depicts the ensuing havoc of US bombing raids on Cambodia, plus shocking footage of Lon Nol’s soldiers’ attacks on the Vietnamese: killing and disembowelling them before eating their livers to “gain the strength of their enemy”.
The film effectively conveys the shifting allegiances and power plays across Indochina which led to the formation of the Khmer Rouge.
The film’s sequel, Cambodia Kampuchea, picks up where its predecessor left off, in the empty streets of Phnom Penh in 1975.
Gerrand has located an amazing collection of archival footage for this film, including one of Pol Pot’s few television interviews, plus rare images of Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan, currently awaiting trial for their role in the Khmer Rouge regime.
The director also questions China’s role as Cambodia’s closest ally during this period.
“China must have known about these atrocities,” says a voice-over, asserting that “China was committed to backing the Khmer Rouge to the bitter end”.
After Vietnam invaded, a cache of thousands of tonnes of weapons and ammunition supplied by China was found 10 kilometres north of Phnom Penh.
Yet it seems unlikely any Chinese leaders will find themselves in the docks alongside their Khmer Rouge allies.
Sihanouk’s own allegiances shifted during the Khmer Rouge era, first joining them as a figurehead, then leaving when it became apparent he had no influence on their hardline views.
“Their main motivations are not of an ideological nature,” Sihanouk said of the regime’s leaders.
“It is personal ambition.”
The film shows Sihanouk’s triumphant return to Cambodia. As he was swamped by well-wishers, he declared “I am a man of national unity”.
While the films are dated in their style, they offer an insight into Cambodia’s recent history and politics.
The films also provide a glimpse of a man whose influence on Cambodia cannot be underestimated.
The documentaries are due to screen at 7pm, Thursday, October 29 at Meta House, Street 264, Phnom Penh.