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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 108-126

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A Cambodian Tragedy

Born in Phnom Penh in 1964, filmmaker Rithy Panh survived the Khmer Rouge regime, but lost his parents, sister, and many other family members as a result of the genocide. In 1979, at age fifteen, he escaped across the Thai border and traveled to France, settling there. At first, he tried to forget his past experiences, refusing to speak Khmer and rejecting all ties with Cambodia; but he found that the only way he could rebuild a life was to face what had happened to his country and himself. In 1985, he enrolled in France's national cinema school, Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques. His first documentary won the 1988 Grand Prix du Documentaire at the Festival of Amiens. Since then, he has made over half a dozen award-winning films. His most recent work is S-21, the Khmer Rouge Death Machine, which was shown as an official selection at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.

The following translation of Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy is the first appearance in print of a documentary by Panh. Completed in 1996, the film tells the story of Hout Bophana and Ly Sitha, a young couple caught in Cambodia's political upheaval. Their forbidden letters briefly kept them in touch with one another, but eventually were used by the Khmer Rouge as evidence to justify the couple's imprisonment, torture, and execution. Credits for the film appear at the end of this volume.

* * *
Title card reads:
For Uncle Koeun, victim of Tuol Sleng S-21, and for Hiran, reported disappeared
Close-up of two large files containing hand-written letters, reports, and "confessions." Title card over the files and letters. Female voiceover.
Autobiography of Hout Bophana
Age 25, female
Khmer nationality, married
Born in Third District, Phnom Penh
Former General Secretary vi-ya-ar humanitarian organization
Arrested by Angkar
Three people are looking through the files.
These are her letters, and over there, her husband's letters. [End Page 108]
Camera tracks Mr. Toeuth as he scans a wall covered from floor to ceiling with small photographs. These are the photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims before they were executed in Tuol Sleng, the detention center in Phnom Penh also known as S-21. The Tuol Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum is located on the grounds of the former prison. Mr. Toeuth points to a photograph of a young woman.
I'm not mistaken. I'm certain she's my niece. It's certainly her. People called her Mumm. It was her nickname. Her name on her birth certificate was Hout Bophana. [Moves about the room full of photographs.]
When she was in high school, she had a round face. When we saw each other in 1975 , following the fall of Phnom Penh, she had hollow cheeks. She was worried...She had lost her family. We were rather sad. We dared not look into each other's eyes...We felt a lump in our throats. We couldn't talk to each other. Then she left and went to Phum Boeung. And I said goodbye to her. We couldn't talk to each other because the militia were spying on us. They were there next to us. I wanted to tell her to come and live with me. But I dared not ask. I was afraid of the militia. They could kill both of us. Thus, we were separated without saying a word. When I saw her photo, I felt terrified...She was in Baray and then she came here to die...I can no longer speak.
Image of sunlight through the barred windows of S-21, then an image of Vann Nath painting a large portrait of Bophana. Voiceover.
In totalitarian regimes, the horror of the terror is that it rules over men and women and deprives them of their true fate. In Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 , the Khmer Rouge were the incarnation of a policy that denied all reference to the humanity of those they subjugated. In Pol...


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