Inside the Multicultural Center at Orange Coast College, Cambodian survivors and audience members joined in prayer as a Buddhist monk blessed and cleansed the room before the film screening of “Daze of Justice” Thursday night.
The documentary, directed by Michael Siv, follows the journey of three survivors of the Cambodian genocide and Dr. Leakhena Nou, a Cal State Long Beach sociology instructor, as they seek justice and travel to Cambodia to deliver testimony against war criminals of the Khmer Rouge.
“It’s very important to listen to the stories of marginalized groups because they offer the most accurate perspective on social inequality. They would be the most motivated to reverse those inequalities,” Phatana Ith, a member of the Cambodian community and a communications professor at OCC said.
The Cambodian genocide, which occurred in the mid-1970s, resulted in the deaths of over 1.5 million Cambodian people. It was led by the Khmer Rouge, a communist group that took control and willingly tortured and killed anyone deemed an enemy of the state.
Marie Chea, one of the survivors, had nearly her entire family killed under the Khmer Rouge and was forced to work to the brink of exhaustion in several labor camps. Sophany Bay, a survivor and former schoolteacher, was forced out of her home by soldiers and worked in labor camps, losing her three children in the genocide.
And Sarem Neou, a survivor who had returned to Cambodia to reunite with her family after studying abroad in France, was kept in a camp by the Khmer Rouge and lost multiple family members.
Film director Siv, whose mother had escaped the camps with him as a child, was familiar with the silence his generation had dealt with when it came to discussing the atrocities that occurred under the Khmer Rouge.
“Being able to craft the story, shape the story, working and listening to these testimonies over and over and over, sometimes it helps you understand more,” Siv said. “It’s not like I would say there’s a wound and I’m healed or anything like that, but I sure damn feel a lot better. And things are more clear.”
Nou, the Cal State Long Beach instructor, whose expertise is medical sociology and international human rights, worked with survivors of the genocide and encouraged them to file statements in court. The act was based not in revenge, but as a way to find peace among each other and educate future Cambodian generations.
On their way to the Khmer Rouge trials in Phnom Penh, Nou met with and invited the son of convicted war criminal Kang Kek Iew, a man responsible for over 12,000 deaths. His son, Hong Siu Pheong, joined them in attending Case 002, a trial described as the Nuremberg of Cambodia by Siv.
“I think it’s important for people to understand how human rights violations, even though it occurred 40 years ago, could still be harmful for people that’s currently experiencing (and) living their life right now,” Nou said.
A panel discussion after the film was led by the three survivors, Nou, Siv and Vattana Peong, executive director of the Cambodian Family, a community-organization focused on assisting Cambodian refugees. The survivors shared their stories and the panel discussion centered on the importance of creating dialogue about these events.
“It’s a powerful and important topic. I just think it’s something that people should talk about. I hope it’s the first of many things, I hope we do other events,” Michael Mandelkern, dean of Literature and Languages and co-chair of the International Multicultural Committee said.
The documentary was chosen by Ith, who worked with Mandelkern to coordinate the event. TCF aided in bringing Cambodian community members, the Buddhist monk and partners to the screening.
“It's been over 40 years, but memories and issues brought from the genocide are still very much alive today. Through this film, we hope people, particularly those affected by the genocide, will be encouraged to tell their stories of struggle, survival, and resilience and more importantly, are able to reflect and heal,” Peong said in an email.
Peong also discussed the importance of mental health services and barriers the Cambodian community in Orange County faces in receiving these services – such as the lack of Khmer speaking doctors.
“It’s not just a Cambodian genocide that’s unique, it currently impacts refugees and survivors around the world, including what’s happening in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and Rwanda,” Nou said.