In New Exhibition on Khmer Rouge, Devil Is in the Details

The trauma of the Khmer Rouge era is often spoken about in numbers: an estimated 1.7 million dead, 12,000 victims at the S-21 detention center alone, some 680,000 people in refugee camps on the Thai border by December 1979.

But for those who survived Pol Pot’s labor camps, it’s often details that remain branded into their memory, said Chea Sopheap, executive director of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

Artist Mang Sarith completes his clay-figurine scenes of Khmer Rouge work camps on Friday at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Artist Mang Sarith completes his clay-figurine scenes of Khmer Rouge work camps on Friday at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

For instance, the ladles that cooks used in camps’ canteens to serve the watery rice soup known as borbor became an ominous instrument for many people, he said. “Those who were waiting in line kept looking at that spoon…because they were so hungry. If the person who distributed the borbor didn’t like someone or felt he didn’t work hard enough, he would put only a little or just watery borbor in his bowl,” Mr. Sopheap said. “The distribution of borbor was charged with hatred.”

Such details are what the Bophana center staff has focused on this year to mark Unesco’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, which will be celebrated around the world on Thursday.

The center has produced a series of about 10 short films, each featuring a person sharing memories from the labor camps that have haunted him or her ever since. The five-to-12-minute films—in Khmer with English subtitles—will be shown on screens in the center’s exhibition hall starting this afternoon in an exhibition entitled “It’s Our Story—Memory of the Village by Khmer Rouge Survivors.”

The exhibition also includes a large display in which artist Mang Sarith—who fashioned the clay figurines that film director Rithy Panh used in his award-winning feature film “The Missing Picture”—has recreated with small clay figurines some scenes of life in Khmer Rouge work camps that were described in the short films.

To produce this film series, the Bophana team went to villages where they had developed relationships with respected village figures or children of Khmer Rouge survivors, said center writer Keo Duong. “People really want to share their story, but one must first build trust: So as long as they trusted us, they shared their story.”

Although people had agreed to take part, it was far from easy for them to tell their stories, Mr. Duong said. “When people talked about how difficult it was to work from early morning to late at night…or how they lost their family…they started to cry,” he said. “Sometimes, we paused a little bit and let them talk slowly or do whatever they wanted, and just listened.”

One woman started preparing vegetables for cooking as she cried, but carried on talking; another busied himself making a buffalo harness while he continued his story.

For Mr. Sopheap and Mr. Duong—both historians by training—such memories of ordinary people must be preserved for those born after the regime to learn about what life was really like and understand the Khmer Rouge’s impact beyond the deaths and physical destruction.

A ceremony will be held at Bophana on Friday to mark Audiovisual Day. The exhibition runs for two weeks.

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