This is a very moving and quite unforgettable film by Roshane Saidnattar about life under the Khmer Rouge which features interviews with Khieu Samphan, who was President of the regime from 1976-79. The film is known as ‘L’important c’est de rester vivant’ in French: ‘The important thing is to stay alive’, which is advice her mother gave her during these years.
The film consists basically of two parts which are interwoven. The first is made up of interviews with Khieu Samphan who by the time the film was being made was a farmer and a grandfather living with his children and grandchildren and worrying about his crops.
Samphan is a very unlikely character, an intellectual who studied at the Sorbonne, who was a part of the previous regime of Prince Sihanouk, until his radicalism meant he had to flee into the jungle. He seems on the one hand quite reflective, and on the other very much in denial.
He always protested that he knew nothing about what was happening, and that people were being massacred. But given the extreme scale of the killings that took place (about 1/3 of the population died, some two and a half million), and that everybody else certainly knew, it is hard to take him at his word.
The other part of the film is a reconstruction of Roshane’s childhood in which she and her family were driven out of Phnom Phen and into the countryside to work alongside the peasants, but in a much inferior position to them, as being part of the despised intellectual class.
It was a life of extreme paranoia where one wrong word could get you and/or your family executed. She was separated from her mother for a year, until her mother grew so weak she was reassigned, and had to return to the village, close to her daughter.
At the end of the film Roshane together with her young daughter and her mother return to the village and meet with many of the villagers they had lived with during those years, a meeting full of tension and unease, as these people held the power of life and death over them for many years. That they are both suffering from PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is clear from this final encounter.
Samphan himself was arrested during the making of this film, and eventually he was found guilty by a court of Cambodian and International jurors, both of crimes against humanity and of genocide, and was sentenced to life inprisonment. He remains in prison till this day (Nov. 2020).
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