Portraits of Truth: A New Film Explores Memory and Justice Through One Man’s Journey Back to Cambodia



The following story is featured as part of our series on Arts, Memory, and Truth, which draws upon ICTJ's long-standing work to engage artists, youth, and other truth-tellers in documenting truth-seeking efforts, shaping personal narratives of violence, and influencing public discourse around transitional justice issues. In Angkar, a documentary film screened on June 16 at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Neary Adeline Hay follows her father Khonsaly, a victim of the Khmer Rouge, as he returns to the village he fled almost 30 years ago. The family's memory of torture and repression is an intergenerational offering to truth and memorialization that dances between the inheritance of abuse and its painful recollection by a survivor.

New Film Explores Memory and Justice Through One Man's Journey Back to Cambodia

Neither time nor space has emancipated many victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from the burden of the past. For most of us, the act of remembering may feel like a choice. But for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity worldwide, the traumatic memories often persist for their entire lives as they grapple with the meaning of the past.

Angkar follows one of those victims, Khonsaly, to the home he left almost 30 years ago. He and his family were among the millions forced to leave Phnom Pehn and marched to the countryside as part of the regime’s policy of emptying the cities. We make the journey of memory and return with him, to Phnom Pehn where his family lived and kept a pharmacy, then through aerial photography we are transported the vast distances he was once forced to march to the tiny village where he was compelled to perform hard labor for four years.

Khonsaly is joined by his daughter, Neary Adeline Hay, the filmmaker, who goes in and out of the frame as he confronts his former persecutors. The film invites you into these intimate encounters. The quiet exchanges are riveting to watch and are essential viewing for anyone interested in the human capacity to rationalize injustice and to forget the crimes they committed.

The film reveals that memory is not unambiguous, but requires struggle to find meaning; it requires the commitment by social actors to interrogate that past for lessons that allow us not only to live in the present, but to build a future for all. Yet Cambodia and the many former Khmer Rouge who are still alive today have still not fully confronted the atrocities committed during their rule, with approximately 1.7 million estimated to have died by execution, starvation, and forced labor from 1975 to 1979.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) which were established to do just that have fallen well short, despite being in operation for over a decade at a cost of over $300 million. To date, only three members of the regime have been convicted by the court and jailed for their crimes. Meanwhile, other perpetrators remain free to live out their lives, including those like Khmer Rouge official, Im Chaem, 74, who was accused of overseeing the deaths of tens of thousands of people in a labor camp, much like the one where Khonsaly suffered. The collective, symbolic, and moral reparations ordered by the ECCC that are being offered through partners with donor support have provided little in the way of meaningful redress.

The film shows the stark justice deficit enabling perpetrators to remain silent and to not ask for forgiveness. And the countryside, which holds many of Khonsaly’s memories, remains isolated from the limited efforts at official accountability provided within the chambers of the ECCC. National efforts at memorialization such as S-21 Prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Pehn where one can still see the interrogation rooms used by the Khmer Rouge and view photo exhibits showcasing the victims, are likewise far away.

The countryside, where so much is known and so much is hidden, provides the backdrop for Khonsaly’s work of piecing together memories. There he must get reacquainted with both the village and villagers. Although time and nature have erased many of the objects of memory, there are clues to the past if you know where to look. There is the thorny, long-stemmed woody vine, an iron liana, that was used to beat people. The ancient trees still stand near where victims of mass execution were buried, silent witnesses to the violence committed.

Through his interactions, the personal reconstruction of memory and the politics of that memory are juxtaposed. The tensions between local understandings and experiences of justice and those implemented at the national and international levels are highlighted. During quiet confrontations, we see Khonsaly engage not with anger, but with empathy and soft words, disarming his persecutors with understanding and ultimately with the truth of what they did and the ethical distance between abuser and abused. Khonsaly comes “with a light heart” and not “after revenge.” He seeks “to do right according to the Dharma,” to act with virtue and generosity.

The darkness enveloping Khonsaly in the last scene of the film as he walks away, a single light barely illuminating his way, is symbolic of the journey he takes with us and of the path he must continue to travel. Much will remain unresolved, but clarity can be achieved at least in part when steps are taken. Memory work, whether undertaken by a single individual or by society as a whole, contributes to the struggle against impunity for war crimes and gross violations of human rights. Victims like Khonsaly who had endured deprivation and physical aggression and suffered for so long in silence must be heard and acknowledged.

ICTJ works in countries around the world to promote memory work and the right to justice, truth and memory, redress, and accountability. ICTJ is a proud co-sponsor of the 2018 New York Human Rights Watch Festival.