A Survivor’s Scars

At a seaside fish market in Kampot province, a man grabs a basket of fish, swirling it in the ocean to clean it. His hands are lined by the toils of a fisherman. His right hand, we see, is missing a knuckle.

“Scars of Cambodia,” a 30-minute documentary shot over two months in 2012 by French filmmakers Alexandre Liebert and Emilie Arfeuil, was the opening film at the Phnom Penh International Film Festival last month at Meta House, the German cultural center.

A still from ‘Scars of Cambodia’
A still from ‘Scars of Cambodia’

Using video and photographs, the low-budget film follows Tut, a 52-year-old fish cleaner, as he recounts, 35 years later, the tortures he suffered as a prisoner under the Khmer Rouge. But the film features a key device, or rather lack of one: There is no speech.

Guided only by a poignantly sparse score and natural sounds, the audience experiences Tut’s tale through his body, as he did.

In many ways, it is a narrative all too familiar. Like many Cambodians, Tut lost family and friends during the Pol Pot regime.

He survived to bear the scars: the missing knuckle, a wound on his left shoulder, wrists and ankles transformed by the shackles that once bound them.

But Mr. Liebert and Mr. Arfeuil’s collaboration seeks not to merely document, in a strict historical fashion, another survivor’s tale. The filmmakers, rather, are renouncing the verbal for the corporal, the tactile, the intimate.

Mr. Liebert filmed Tut with a sensitivity for gestures and glances. Mr. Arfeuil photographed him with similar care, at times using a technique called “light painting,” taking 15-second exposures to capture the contours of Tut’s skin. During the shooting, the filmmakers did not interview him.

In the absence of words, the viewer’s senses are tuned to observe the literal form of the subject as he reenacts the tortures: He clamps his hands around once-manacled feet, grabs a wooden plank to imitate beatings, pinches his fingers to form the tweezers that took out fingernails, to then writhe on the floor until his body lies still.

These tortured movements are complemented by scenes from Tut’s life today, where, despite his cataracts, he labors to support his wife and foster daughter. The result is a sobering yet powerful portrait of a man carrying his country’s violent past in his form.

But like many artistic endeavors that use the body as the subject, the film treads a thin line between relating intimacy and exoticizing the body. In its attempt to humanize Tut beyond the barriers of language, the film’s focus on the body risks reducing Tut’s life to his physical scars.

One notably less successful moment is a scene in which images of Tut’s body are juxtaposed with that of a younger villager, about Tut’s age when he was imprisoned, shown one after the other against a black background. A young, unmarked body, contrasted with its worn, older counterpart makes for an overused trope that hammers, rather than subtly underlines, the film’s message.

“Scars of Cambodia” deliberately objectifies its subject by focusing on the corporal—the scars—in order to provoke deeper reflection on Cambodia’s violent history.

Like other attempts to document the psychology of traumatized subjects (one recalls, for example, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” in which Indonesian subjects reenacted the 1960s anti-communist massacres in that country), the film’s success entails risking an audience stuck on the surface, mistaking its sensibility for superficiality, its humanizing for “other”-ing.

Yet the film achieves something profound. As one watches Tut, his movements and his eyes intimate not just a victim of the Khmer Rouge, one among many, but a man in his fullest form. Through the film’s rejection of verbal accounts of the violence we become desensitized to—numbers and methods and official narratives—“Scars of Cambodia” resensitizes the viewer.

In all, “Scars of Cambodia” produced by Helium Films and funded in part through crowdfunding (about $11,000 was raised), is a successful mixed-media exploration of a tough subject. The final version of the film was released in January and won the Best Photography and Best Original Film Score awards at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France.

The film’s first audience, however, was Tut and his wife, who watched a working version two years ago. The private showing was followed by screenings in Tut’s village and at about 10 other events in Phnom Penh, Kampot and Kep.

In a post on their blog in December 2012, the filmmakers wrote that Tut “wishes that all his neighbors and friends know finally his history…. For him, a page turns, and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“Scars of Cambodia” is currently touring international festivals, including those in France, Canada, and Italy, with a web documentary set to launch in 2015. Now, the Phnom Penh International Film Festival brings the final version home.

While Mr. Arfeuil said there are no more screenings planned for Cambodia, the working version of the film is available and free to watch at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. Here, perhaps, Tut’s body will resonate with viewers, each bearing their own scars.

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Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said the documentary was shot over two weeks. It was shot over two months.

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