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Q&A: Robert H. Lieberman, Director of ‘Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia’

'Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia’ is directed and produced by Robert H. Lieberman, a novelist, filmmaker, and member of the Physics faculty at Cornell University. (Courtesy of Robert H. Lieberman)
'Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia’ is directed and produced by Robert H. Lieberman, a novelist, filmmaker, and member of the Physics faculty at Cornell University. (Courtesy of Robert H. Lieberman)

“Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia” is an emotional film chronicling Cambodian history from ancient times up to the present.

[Editor’s Note: With a focus on modern Cambodia, where its population strive to move beyond the dark period of the Khmer Rouge, “Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia” is an emotional film chronicling Cambodian history from ancient times up to the present. Directed and produced by Robert H. Lieberman, a novelist, filmmaker, and member of the Physics faculty at Cornell University, the documentary – which was released last year and aims to bring attention to Cambodia – provides a chance for people from all walks of life to reflect on Cambodian society and its future. Lieberman recently spoke to VOA Khmer reporter Phy Sopheada about the film and recent political developments in Cambodia.]

VOA: You used the phrase “Angkor Awakens” as the title of your documentary. What do you mean by this?

RL: I think Cambodia has come out of a very dark period, so it awakens, of course, from the Pol Pot regime. They [Cambodians] are awakening, and I find it among the young people. The older generations, those who lived through the Khmer Rouge period are rather damaged or fearful, while the young are awakening, and I think they’re becoming, among other things, politically active and they are much more optimistic than their parents.

What are they optimistic about?

They are optimistic about their future, about their careers. This is only my personal opinion after four years of being here. I think Cambodia is at its tipping point. I did a film “They Call It Myanmar” in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi, and at that time the country was closed down; there were very few Americans in the country, and people asked you “what can they do?”, “how can they change things?,” and I said I don’t really have an answer, when amazingly the changes happened very dramatically. I feel the country [Cambodia] is at its tipping point. Someone in the film talked about that. Demographics have changed here. I think 75 percent of the young people were born right after the Khmer Rouge period. You have this huge demographic shift now of the young people. The face of Cambodia is changing, and that’s what we deal with in the film.

Is that the purpose of the film?

I don’t know what the purpose of the film is. There are many purposes. There are my own selfish purposes; there are bigger world purposes. It’s hard to answer a question like that, but I think one purpose is just to bring Cambodia to western audiences. People know nothing about Cambodia, and they know nothing of its history, of the U.S. involvement in Cambodia’s history, of the secret bombing of Cambodia, of the incursion by U.S. troops into Cambodia, about the Khmer Rouge. This is an attempt to bring Cambodia into the limelight. It’s a country that people should know about, and a history that is intertwined with American history.

Why do you think your film is a must-watch?

It’s a tough question. I think documentary often has a character that you follow, or a group of people that you follow. The character of this film is the country of Cambodia. We are going to take you on a journey. We are going to take you from ancient Angkor through the French colonial period or protectorate period, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot, and ultimately the Vietnamese entering in Cambodia overthrowing the Khmer Rouge. We’re going to take you through right after the present day and into the future.

What do you think are the root causes of Cambodia’s conflicts, especially the conflict that led to the civil war and genocide?

I think in some sense, Cambodia is not unique. People are always struggling for power. We see this in the Middle East, what’s going on in Syria; we see it all over the world. It’s a power struggle, apparently human beings can’t get along with human beings, and they want control. I think what happened during the Khmer Rouge period is unique; it’s an auto-genocide. I am a child of the holocaust, and my parents managed to flee Vienna, but most families were killed. So I sort of have this background. But the Cambodian genocide is very unique. Usually, there are others involved. You know the Nazis hated the Jews. Hutus in Rwanda hated the Tutsis. But this is the case where you have Khmer against Khmer, Khmer killing Khmer. It’s a little unique in the history of the world, but not completely different. It’s again a power struggle, and there is a power struggle going on right now in Cambodia. The history of Cambodia is one of constant struggles.

Robert H. Lieberman is a producer and director of "Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia." (Courtesy of Cornell University)
Robert H. Lieberman is a producer and director of "Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia." (Courtesy of Cornell University)

What do you think about Cambodia under Hun Sen’s leadership?

What I think is not important. What the Cambodian people think is much more important. I’m an outsider looking in. This man [Hun Sen] has been in power for 36 years. I had an interview with him that lasted two hours; it was me and Hun Sen, eyeball to eyeball, for two hours. I think the reason that he did this is he wanted to address the American people. I think he tried to burnish his image.

Look, here in Cambodia, the level of fear now is rising again. People are afraid and I think the government is getting repressive once again. The elections are approaching. You know, young persons were put in jail for simply posting something on his Facebook. You know, there is struggle that is going on, I assume, between the CNRP and the CPP. Sam Rainsy is stuck in Paris in exile afraid to come back because he’s going to be arrested. There is turmoil under the surface. They [Cambodians] are fearful because the situation is tightening. People have to be careful about what they say, what they do, and what they post on the internet. So it’s certainly not a democracy. I don’t think anybody thinks it is. I think Hun Sen thinks it’s a democracy. When you see the film, you’ll see what Hun Sen thinks.

In the film, Prime Minister Hun Sen says he wonders what Cambodia will look like after him and who will lead Cambodia. What do you make of this?

I think he’s preparing his son for an ultimate takeover. Global Witness had a big report on Cambodia and corruption. You know the country is in the grip of corruption and this string of power. I don’t think people are relenting and letting go. Those in power want to stay in power. I don’t see a democratic revolution coming in Cambodia. I don’t have real expectation, but then you cannot predict what will happen.

Do you think a leadership change in Cambodia is necessary?

I don’t think it’s good that somebody stays in power for 36 years. That’s not a democracy. And I don’t know if democracy is meant for every country. In order to have a democracy, you need an educated population, a population that read and understand what’s going on.

There are different types of democracy. There are different types of government. Maybe what is suitable for Cambodia is not sort of a complete open democracy. I don’t know. It’s not for me to say really. It’s for Cambodians to say what they want, but I think they need to have the opportunity to say what they want, and I don’t think they are free to say what they want. You know, it’s easy for me to come in from the outside and help Cambodians see what they should have. They need to decide what they should have, but they should have the opportunity; the system needs to be open some more; people have to be able to criticize without being fearful of criticism, of getting into trouble.

Some people in the film are satisfied with the current regime, while others are eager for change. Which do you think holds more weight among the population?

I think, absolutely, there is more weight for change, but there is always fearful undertone that “Oh! My god, we could go back to the Khmer Rouge period,” which is not realistic. I don’t think the country would go back that way, but people have had such a terrible and traumatic history in this country that people get nervous. Thirty-six years of the same person [in power] is getting a little long, I think. There is a huge gap between the very wealthy and the very poor, and that’s not moral, really. This inequity, by the way, is a worldwide phenomena even in the United States too, but it’s rather extreme here.

What is the main problem facing Cambodia now?

I think the main problem facing Cambodia is education. If you have an educated population, things get better. The educational level is terrible. Those who have money can go to good schools, but the rest of the country doesn’t have that. One thing I have noticed, [which] maybe other people haven’t noticed, is that nobody reads here. They don’t read books, and this is kind of shocking to me as a teacher. I don’t see people carrying books; I don’t see people reading books. Cambodians are not readers, and that is very disturbing, and that is part of education. You need to create a population that reads.

Some argue healthcare is the most important factor that could benefit the country. What is your opinion of this?

Sure, if the children are not eating, then their brains can’t properly develop. They are not getting nutrients or the micro-nutrients they need. So, of course, they need to be fed; they need to be kept healthy, and they need to be educated. You need teachers who really are themselves educated. This is a big task.

Are you optimistic about the future of Cambodia?

Yes, I am optimistic. Cambodia has gone through such dark period. It only can get better, and has to get better, and I hope for it to get better. Still, poverty is a major problem here, as I mentioned, a lack of education, lack of healthcare. It’s got to get better. That’s my hope for the country. The film ends with a hopeful note, and I hope it comes to pass, then good things will happen.