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'CAMBODIA DREAMS' by Stanley Harper



As the world watches the historic trials of the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, this is a good time to watch a ‘life-affirming’  film on the country, by a New Zealand director, who spent two decades of his life, to make it. Stanley Harper’s 18-year-old cinematic odyssey ‘Cambodia Dreams’   is an amazing film in more ways than one. Apart from being made against all odds in a politically volatile country, it achieved the miraculous  feat of ‘connecting’ a  mother and daughter, living on either side of the border,  who did not even know, they existed!   The movie had an unprecedented screening on all seven TV channels of Cambodia,last year. At the end of it,  the toughie Prime Minister of the country Hun Sen gave the New Zealand director an honorary citizenship of the country!
Harper said that he was so financially and emotionally drained after  making the film, that he did not have the means or energy to send the film to international film festivals, although that would have been the ultimate reward for his two-decade cinematic   odyssey.
It all started way back in 1986, when the BBC commissioned Harper to make a film on the refugees living on the Thai border, as part of a BBC Global Report Special, to commemorate the International Year of   Peace.

The New Zealander, then based in Paris, came with his camera-team to the famous  ‘Site 2’ refugee camp, 50kms from the Aranyaprathet / Poipet border crossing, never imagining it would change his life.

It was here that he met Yan Chheing, the ‘granny’ whose story became the subject of his two-decade film-odyssey.

The BBC film was quickly finished.

After that, Harper, got started on his own film, totally fascinated by the ‘granny’s moving  tales about the country she was forced to leave ,and   live in the ‘outside’ refugee camp.

The result was a one-hour documentary called ‘ Situation Zero’, which was premiered at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1988, by the US Committee for Refugees, to a rave response.
The film was simultaneously screened on national TV, in three countries- Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, creating such an impact that it was later televised in 14 countries around the world.

But Harper still felt his movie was incomplete.

Somewhere in the course of filming ‘ Situation Zero’, the ‘granny’ had mentioned the name of  her daughter, ‘Tha’, who lived in  ‘Preak Kroach’ village in Cambodia .

He knew that this was the ‘other half' of the Cambodian story that he needed to tell.

It was not easy getting into Cambodia.

But with the help of an NGO organization  and a Khmer interpreter, Harper sought hard, and found both the village, and  the daughter.

It was when he was inside Cambodia, that the New Zealander realized how this mother-daughter relationship reflected the “deep and divisive” feelings between those who  lived inside the country, and those who lived outside.

One of the most moving scenes in the film, is when the daughter gets a letter from her mother (delivered by Harper) - the first ‘connection between  both of  them.

After 12 years in the refugee camp, the ‘granny’ finally returns to her village and her daughter.

The film suffered a set-back  in 1992, when there was a military coup in Thailand, followed by an economic crash, which led to a crash in the funding of the documentary.

But Harper went back to Cambodia, nearly a decade later  in 2001, and completed his story on the ‘Granny’, this time filming her grand-children, including one of them dying of AIDS.

The film, that was started in 1986, was finally completed in April 2008 !

‘Cambodia Dreams’ was  hugely appreciated, when it was screened at  London’s well-known  Frontline Journalist’s Club, last year. This year, it will have a special screening, in the presence of  the dynamic director, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, on 30 April. 




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I'm an Indian film-writer, based in Bangkok, and write for publications in India & Thailand. I also coordinate and curate film programs in the two countries, at cultural centres/clubs, film festivals.



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