Q&A: A humble rice farmer from Cambodia teaches reconciliation

News Stories, 17 September 2009

© Courtesy of Stanley Harper
New Zealand film-maker Stanley Harper with Yan Chheing, star of Cambodia Dreams, a documentary chronicling her life as a refugee and returnee to Cambodia over 18 years.

BANGKOK, Thailand, September 17 (UNHCR) New Zealand film-maker Stanley Harper has worked with artists such as Roman Polanski and the late Sir John Gielgud. But no one has captivated him quite as much as a Cambodian grandmother called Yan Chheing, a refugee who became the star of a documentary Harper worked on for 18 years, chronicling the parallel lives of her extended family, half of whom went to a refugee camp in Thailand while half remained in their village in Cambodia. The resulting film, "Cambodia Dreams," was praised by India's The Hindu newspaper as a work that "connected a family, reconciled a community, rebuilt hope in a ravaged country." Harper, who now lives in Cambodia, sat down recently in Bangkok to talk with Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR Senior Regional Public Information Officer for Asia.

You originally wanted to finish the film in 1992 before the repatriation that year of some 350,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand. What happened?

Most of our funding came from a very wealthy Thai businessman. We had taken the [refugee] family home early and finished filming in April 1992, but in May 1992 there was a coup in Thailand and his company barred him from putting any more money into our project. So it crashed. That was the end of it. I tried again many times, in '93, '95 and '97 to raise funding to get the film finished.

Over the years you have actually made three films about this family. What drew you back to them?

I made my first film for the BBC Global Reports Special for the UN Year of Peace 1986 and that's where I met my family, as some of those forgotten by peace. I thought this grandmother, this former rice farmer, was so special. She had been living in refugee camps since 1980 and she had a memory of what Cambodia was in times of peace and prosperity, but her grandchildren had all been born in refugee camps and knew nothing except handouts and living behind fences.

The first time I went back to see my family in their village [in 1997], I hadn't been back since 1991. I remember being a bit depressed about them because it didn't seem like they had made leaps and jumps. That night when I was back at the hotel it hit me that I had seen a miracle and I had almost missed it. The mother and the daughter were still together. It was reconciliation and it was lasting. They had come together and they had stayed together. I realized the film was even more important. It is a real story about why it is positive to help people in need. It does work.

In the film, one member of the family who stayed in Cambodia envies the ones who are refugees in Thailand. Did that surprise you?

No, not at all. Cambodia had just come through the Khmer Rouge and, before that, roughly five years of civil war. It was just devastated. The granny was the leader of the refugees, the spokesperson for the camp: "We want to live and work for ourselves. We want to go home. We don't want to be behind a fence. We don't want to live on charity." And she remembers her dream of Cambodia as it was, everything was perfect.

And then there's Tha, her daughter, who's the spokesperson for the villagers who stayed behind. Tha's daughter died because she couldn't get medicine, but the refugees have free medical care. Those inside Cambodia had nothing and no help and those in the border camps had everything Western medicine, food, shelter, water, they didn't even have to work. They could just sit around and have a good time. That was the feeling paradise, what more do you want?

For me this film shows one good thing: the real model for dealing with a refugee problem. It was locally contained, regionally resolved, and the people went home. That's amazing.

Cambodia Dreams is set in Thailand and Cambodia, but does it have meaning to people in other parts of the world?

I think it's timeless and universal. It could be anywhere in the world. What is it about? It is about belonging. It's largely about tenacity, the resilience of humanity to overcome, to hold fast to a dream, not lose sight of it and achieve it. It's a really beautiful, pure, wonderful story about generosity, humanity, love, forgiveness, reconciliation. There is not one word of politics in that film. No one is right and no one is wrong.

You got a lot of support from UN agencies to make your film, but there isn't one word of propaganda for the United Nations in the film. At the same time, what do you think the film implicitly says about the UN?

The film is very much the essence of what the whole UN was set up for. It's the spirit, the heart and the soul of the UN. The essence of the UN is inherent in the film: helping people in any mess is positive.

The film was shown in Cambodia last year. What was the reaction?

I showed the film to the King [Norodom Sihamoni], who loved it, and then the Prime Minister [Hun Sen]. He loved the film; it brought tears to his eyes and he [sponsored] an official screening in Cambodia. Then it went out on all seven Cambodian networks at the same time. What was amazing was that all political parties love the film.

What are your future plans for Cambodia Dreams?

It will be shown in Tokyo at the Refugee Film Festival on the 2nd and 3rd of October and at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong on the 7th of October. The real challenge with a film like this is getting worldwide distribution, but I really don't have any means myself. I have an unrealistic dream. I would just love the film to go out in places like Palestine and Israel, North and South Korea, Taiwan and China, in Burma. That would be my dream.