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VIFF 2017: Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia

Thank you to the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival for inviting LINK magazine writers out to see this year’s films

Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia

dir. Robert H. Lieberman

Robert H Lieberman’s new documentary focuses on Cambodia, a country that lies on the precipice of a new future after decades of civil strife. The film takes an in depth look at the trauma caused by the horrendous reign of the Khmer Rouge and how it has influenced Cambodian culture to this day. Lieberman paints a picture of two very different generations, an older one fearful of terrors past and a younger generation hopeful for a better future. The cinematography in this film is spectacular: the subjects seem alive and present in every shot. Editor and cameraman David Kossack had quite the task when asked to visually represent an entire culture but has formatted it in a chronological style that audiences can follow. However, the film recognizes that this is only one telling of Cambodia’s story.

Lieberman shows the older generation as survivors. The brutality of the Khmer Rouge forced an entire population to rely on their base instincts to survive a massacre that wiped out around half the population. The trauma of living through the chaos and forging a new order has left a deep wound in the Cambodian people. The terror shattered the sense of trust between people and the government, which resulted in an uneducated police state with a strong belief in ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. The most powerful representation of the generational gap is when a boy breaks down talking about his mother’s childhood experience, while a straight line of tears runs down her serene, smiling face.

The film focuses on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year regime but does not delve into the nature of the regime itself. It shows the positive and negative effects of Hun Sen’s regime with brief societal overviews rather than interviews. It does not give us a reason to care about Cambodia’s state at this time until later in the film. This can be forgiven however, as the nation’s culture discourages the sharing of personal opinion. The view into the lives of Cambodians is enough to give insight into the atmosphere of the country.

The film does not give the audience much history in the beginning, which is a bit problematic since the first few scenes address historical events directly. The exposition is animated, where public figures are represented by cartoons drawn in the traditional Khmer style. Though these animations are smooth and entertaining, the lack of real imagery does not help clarify a very complex situation. The bombardment of information is interesting but can lead to viewer fatigue.

Angkor Awakens is a well-composed documentary that provides the viewer with a basic knowledge of a vibrant and interesting country.  What it lacks in structure is compensated by select scenes of genuine human experience. Go and see this movie prepared to ingest vast amounts of content with an open mind.