To mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, an oral history project has collected survivors’ intimate memories of life under the Khmer Rouge
"We want to move forwards, but first we need to understand the past,” said Chea Sopheap, deputy director of the Bophana Centre.
Sopheap, dressed in a formal shirt with a pink krama looped over his shoulders, was standing in front of a new exhibition, launched at the film archive centre on Wednesday, that he hopes will do just that.
Transmissions 2015 is an oral history project – a collection of conversations between Khmer Rouge survivors and their young relatives – commissioned as the first event of the eight-month-long Acts of Memory program commemorating the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
Sopheap explained that the inspiration stemmed from his own family.
“My mother never used to talk a lot about the Khmer Rouge. She’d just say a few words and stop,” he said. “But when I asked her more questions, she started to share more and more information.
“I feel that when there are more conversations, there is less sadness.”
Alongside a series of videoed dialogues, four edited transcripts from the interviews have been hung on the walls of the Bophana Centre. In one, a woman known as Grand Aunt Sokhim tells of the injustice of being framed by a friend for stealing rice and potatoes. “[She] has never forgotten the time she was in the prison in the mango grove, and how worried she was about her three children starving to death,” reflects the anonymous relative who interviewed her. In another, the interviewer’s grandmother explains how her husband went mad after he was jailed for picking up a fish in the rice fields.
The intimacy of the encounters reveals details that might not have been obtained in a more formal setting. One relative confides that her abiding memory of “Angkar” was when she was instructed to do a job involving leeches, which she was terrified of.
“I was called to ‘get advice’ and they told me leeches could not hold weapons, so I had to do the job despite my fear of them,” she recalls.
Each text is accompanied by a striking double exposure portrait in which the figure of the survivor appears like a ghostly shadow behind the young relative with whom they shared their story. It was a visual representation, Sopheap said, of the Acts of Memory’s stated goal: “learn the past, create the future”.
Transmissions 2015 also pays attention to the material history of the Khmer Rouge years. Underneath the printed conversations, a rough shelf made of wooden slats supports a display of household objects from the time: the ubiquitous rubber sandals with mud still worn into the inner sole, rudimentary pots and cooking utensils in wood and copper, and tarnished enamel bowls decorated with incongruously garish flower patterns.
It’s an inclusion that helps to ground the narratives on display, by providing a tangible link between the past and the present.
Alongside Transmissions 2015, Acts of Memory also boasts the first showing on Cambodian soil of artist Leang Seckon’s commanding installation Flowering Parachute Skirt. The five metre-tall sculpture, which rises up from the centre of the Bophana Centre’s courtyard, is made from a parachute that fell on Seckon’s village during the US bombardment of Cambodia, and was preserved in the village’s temple for several decades.
The skull-topped figure resembles both a menacing soldier and a benign and peaceful deity thanks to the billowing parachute skirt and Leang’s trademark patches of colourful fabric, that scatter the cloth like flowers on a khaki meadow.
The launch of the Acts of Memory program on Wednesday included a talk from Father François Ponchaud. The Year Zero author spoke in fluent Khmer about his memories of Phnom Penh 40 years ago. In keeping with the program's ethos of humanising the events of the 1970s, Ponchaud repeatedly emphasised his impression that the regime’s soldiers were not always the monsters that they would come to be portrayed as.
“The Khmer Rouge were not difficult at that time, especially with the foreigners,” he said of April 1975.
“They seemed to be gentle to us.” He also emphasised that he did not see the Khmer Rouge killing anyone during the evacuation of Phnom Penh. “I’m not saying they didn’t do it, but I didn’t see it.”
Over the next eight months, Acts of Memory will host events including artists’ residencies, film screenings, conferences on youth development and contemporary dance performances.
The packed program is the result of a partnership between the Bophana Centre and Cambodia Living Arts, with support from Seasons of Cambodia.
“We want to make our community stronger and stronger so it’s good to come together,” said Sopheap. “This is a very exciting moment.”