Also showing: Stanley Harper

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am

Unlike most documentaries that paint a grim picture of Cambodia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, Stanley Harper's Cambodia Dreams tells an uplifting story of reunification and reconciliation in a family torn apart for 12 years.

It was not an easy film to make. Harper (right), spent 18 years chronicling the parallel lives of Yan Chheing and her family living in a refugee camp on the Thai border, and that of her daughter, Tha, who was left behind in a Cambodian village.

Harper filmed Yan and Tha without telling them about each other. 'I never told Yan Chheing we were filming with her daughter as it would have ruined the story,' says the Phnom Penh-based New Zealander.

'This is a documentary; it has to record the truth. I set up situations that were going to happen one day with or without me. We interpreted what happened into a cinematographic language as the story unfolded before us. I never knew the outcome.'

The film, completed in April last year, has been critically acclaimed abroad and domestically. It received rave reviews in the British and American press, and Harper was granted honorary citizenship by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and received letters of gratitude from King Sihamoni and his father, Sihanouk, after it was shown on national television in Cambodia.

Despite funding crises and gruelling filming conditions - the heat and dust were compounded by long spells without electricity - Harper and his crew of seven persisted, hoping not just to make a 'technically perfect film', but also wanting to follow the characters that captivated them.

Unlike others who resigned themselves to life in the refugee camps, Yan was desperate to leave. 'She was an amazing woman. She didn't want to be in the camp, she didn't want to go to live in a third country - she wanted to go home where she belonged,' says 55-year-old Harper, who met Yan and her family in a refugee camp while filming a documentary for the BBC in 1986.

'She wanted to work and provide for herself ... Her thoughts were only for the future of her grandchildren. She wanted nothing for herself, but to pass on her knowledge and skills, so they could live in dignity and self-sufficiency.'

Yan mentioned her daughter Tha, who was given away at birth because she was sick, regarded as a bad omen. Harper decided to find the young woman, crisscrossing between Thailand and Cambodia with the help of both countries' governments to document Yan and Tha's vastly different lifestyles.

Harper was overwhelmed by the power of forgiveness when, in the high point of the film, Tha listens as her husband reads a letter from her long-lost mother. They were reunited in 1992 after Yan was allowed to go home after 12 years in the camp.

Harper says politics are never on his agenda. 'It is the people that make any country, and here we meet people we would never normally meet,' he says.

While the Khmer Rouge trials caught the world's attention early this year, Harper says they 'have very little meaning for average Cambodians, especially those in rural areas.

'The start of a healing process, it is largely a Western concept. Buddhists believe more in karma; that those who did the wrong will pay in their next lives.'

'There will be more trials,' he says, 'but the film is not just about these people arriving home but turning reunification into lasting reconciliation ... it has nothing to do with genocide, revolution, death, torture, war, hatred, revenge ... It is a love story, [talking about] family, homeland, heritage, pride in being Cambodian.'

Cambodia Dreams will screen on Oct 7 at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, followed by a discussion with Harper. Admission is HK$250 (HK$175 for club members) including dinner. Inquiries: 2521 1511