By RISHI KANERIYA
How much do we really know about the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s? We know of the Khmer Rouge, the communist guerrilla organization responsible for the deaths of over two million Cambodian lives. We know of Pol Pot, the party’s cruel leader. But we know very little about how that tragedy is still affecting Cambodians today. How do former child soldiers in the Khmer Rouge cope with the experiences of their past?
Princeton-area filmmaker Janet Gardner explores this hidden side of history in her new documentary film entitled Lost Child – Sayon’s Journey, co-produced by Sopheap Theam. Hit the jump for a full review of the film.
The film’s subject, Sayon Soeun, is a Cambodian man who was forced into the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier when he was only 6 years old. He currently lives in Lowell, MA with his wife and child, directing a charity called Light of Cambodian Children
. While he is a physical survivor of unimaginable tragedy, he still struggles to reconcile his emotions.
When he was young, Sayon was told not to wander far from home. One day, he saw a military truck full of kids and decided to take a ride with them, believing he’d return home by the evening. Sayon was instead taken to a children’s camp run by the Khmer Rouge and never saw his family again. At a very young age, his knowledge of the world was molded into an isolated existence, outside of which he knew nothing.
After the Khmer Rouge’s descent into disarray several years after his recruitment, Sayon eventually found himself in a Thai refugee camp, malnourished and alone. At the age of 15, his name was chosen in an adoption process, and he found himself in the home of a loving American family. He has been grappling with hard questions about his early life ever since. One of eight, Sayon wonders if any of his siblings are still alive. He wonders what happened to his parents and whether or not they abandoned him or ever tried to find him after his recruitment.
Gardner’s film documents Sayon’s trip back to Cambodia as he attempts to find some answers while rationalizing the realities of his involvement as a child in the Khmer Rouge. He visits six people who all claim to be his brother or sister and, while skeptical of their contradicting claims, he does not want to disappoint them. He listens to their stories with cautious hope, learning things about his parents that complicate his feelings toward them. He visits a heartbreaking mass grave, a horrifying tower of skulls and bones. He visits various museum sites, seeing himself in photographs of other child soldiers, both as a victim and a perpetrator. He eventually obtains DNA samples from his potential siblings, the results of which are revealed at the film’s conclusion, and returns to the U.S. after a poignant journey in Cambodia.
How is he supposed to feel about a tragedy in which he was complicit as a youth? You get the sense that he carefully oscillates between forgiveness and regret for his actions, unable to fully experience one without losing perspective on the other. It is an impossible management of complicated feelings of responsibility and helplessness, to which the only real solution may be to continue experiencing his new, happier life in America.
The documentary is refreshingly honest in its depiction of Sayon’s journey. Music is used largely for cultural effect, not excessive melodrama. The emotional power of the piece is intrinsic in the reality of Sayon’s situation. The film offers many answers, but introduces even more questions about the ethics of war, including the effectiveness of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a court established to try the most senior, most accountable members of the Khmer Rouge.
The film is educational and effective in its goals, presenting the journey of a brave man discovering hard truths about his lost family, his past as a child soldier, and the extent of his own fortitude as he looks to a brighter future.
For more information about Lost Child – Sayon’s Journey, visit the documentary’s website here.