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Harper's Dream

By: Nathan Green Posted: July-08-2009 in
Stanley Harper - Photo Paul Stewart
Nathan Green

Civil war, death and distrust greeted filmmaker Stanley Harper when he first came to Cambodia in 1988. Two decades and a major film later, a vastly different country prepares to move into the future, writes Nathan Green.

As the Cambodia People's Party prepares to secure its hold on power in a general election this weekend, opposition supporters and a great number of outside observers are preparing a lament for the continued absence of multiparty democracy in the country. Nearly a quarter century ago, when New Zealand filmmaker Stanley Harper first came to Cambodia, most would have settled simply for peace, in whatever form it took.

Arriving on the Thai-Cambodia border in 1986 from France, where he had lived since 1978, to film a documentary marking the International Year of Peace for the BBC, Harper was charged with making sense of the nonsensical – a never-ending civil war pitting an unholy western- and China-backed alliance of Khmer Rouge, Funcinpec royalists and Khmer republicans against a Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh supported by the Soviet Union.

Caught in the middle were ordinary Cambodians like Yan Chheing, the central character in "Cambodia Dreams", Harper's heartrending but ultimately uplifting film of love, family and belonging. Set against a backdrop of political machinations that had ripped Cambodia apart, Harper strips away the politics to focus on the humanity beneath. It is this humanity that will eventually provide the impetus for the process of reconciliation that is even today slowly piecing the country back together again.

"I might have been appalled by the politics of it, but what is the point of coming out and making a film which is politically biased to one party or another?," Harper says. "Who cares if someone's KPNLF [the Son Sann-led republican Khmer People's National Liberation Front], or Funcinpec, or Khmer Rouge, or State of Cambodia? They are all people. They have human needs and those human needs are largely not taken into account by politicians who have other more pressing priorities."

Instead of focusing on the politics and the politicians, Harper tells the story of Cambodia's split and eventual reunification through Yan and her daughter, Tha. The daughter, who had been adopted as a baby, scratches out a meagre existence in a small village in Battambang province. Her adopted parents were now dead, and she does not know the fate of her mother, Yan, who had been caught up in the mass exodus of those who fled to the northeast when the Vietnamese liberated the country in 1978. They eventually ended up in the displaced persons camps across the Thai border when the Vietnamese-backed government in Cambodia mounted a decisive push against the resistance in 1984.

"With the daughter and the mother you have the two sides, the split," he says. "You've got those who left and went to the camps and formed the resistance armies, and those who stayed and had their own army, and they were fighting each other."

More than two decades in the making, the film, which premiered on March 27 at Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk Theatre and was simultaneously aired on all of Cambodia's television networks, documents how the two groups grow further and further apart as the fighting continues and the propaganda war escalates. The people in Cambodia think the people in the camps have abandoned them and are living on the pig's back while those who stayed are working to rebuild the country. Yan's daughter, Tha, says she does not want her mother back, that she had abandoned her and her country.

"There's the hostility," Harper says. "In my film the mother in Cambodia lost her daughter, Chantha, when she was just 13. Why? They had no money and couldn't get the medicine to cure her, while the refugees in the camp have western medicine. Free. That is personal hostility – it is no longer a geographic or political one."

It is this hostility that is slowly broken down through the film, by the simple process of communication and understanding. By understanding the personal, the political becomes less significant in comparison, the lies and propaganda fall away.

The cinematic device that makes Harper's film, and the eventual reconciliation, possible is that neither the mother nor the daughter is initially aware of the other's existence, let alone that he is also filming with them. When Yan discovers the truth, she asks Harper to deliver a letter to her daughter. As the husband reads the letter to Tha, the camera passes from one to the other. Tha perceptively softens.

"Now all of a sudden, everything that had been dividing that family became meaningless," Harper says. "What meaning did it have any more to them that one was politically motivated by one faction or another, that one was in Cambodia or the camps, that one was lucky because they had food and medicine and one had freedom and lived in one's own country. All those issues just fell away . . . "

Harper's film is finished and ready to stand on its own legs, to be judged by the Cambodians it was primarily made for and the international community that would do well to heed its central lessons. Yan and Tha are reunited and reconciled, as are countless other Cambodian families, but Harper hopes the film can reach more Cambodians to help drive reconciliation deeper. The government also sees the benefits of the film and is currently distributing it to all commune and district chiefs throughout the country.

This rocky road to permanent reconciliation faces a stern hurdle in Cambodia this weekend. Harper is however optimistic about the ongoing democratization of the country and, most importantly, its prospects of emerging intact and enriched after decades of war and grinding poverty.

"The country came through war, it came through rehabilitation, an emergency phase, it's come through political democratization in its own weird and wonderful way, and it's then come through this period of growth and expansion," Harper says. "Bloody hell, that's pretty amazing isn't it for a country that just 20 years ago . . . not even, 17 years ago, saw a peace agreement signed. I mean its come a long way."

Hun Sen, the country's controversial prime minister, who gave Harper citizenship in recognition of his film, has been a key player in the country's tumultuous past and is set to remain a key player for the foreseeable future with his party virtually assured of extending its dominance during the weekend's election. Harper gives him credit where it is due.

"I seriously believe that Hun Sen has made quite a large turn to becoming a statesman and a man who has accepted the responsibility for his country and his people," he says. "If Cambodia heads into a period of stability and growth, which are all important, and also into a time where it becomes proud and aware of its own identity and culture that's brilliant. That would be amazing, and it's possible. It's possible."

The people of Cambodia will be hoping that Hun Sen has paid careful attention to granny Yan's closing words in the film. "The future of the next generation is in our hands," she says. "What we do today with our country and our traditions will be their heritage. If we can all stop being greedy and selfish and work together to rebuild our own country in our own way, if we do this, we will leave them something beautiful and of lasting benefit. Our very own Cambodian homeland."

Cambodia may not yet be the multiparty democracy hoped for when the first UNTAC sponsored elections were held in 1993, but it's a darn sight better than what Harper saw when he started his cameras rolling all those years ago.

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