Socheata Poeuv is both the director and subject of New Year Baby. She is also Founder and Executive director of Khmer Legacies, a 501c3 non-profit organization that documents stories of the Cambodian genocide one survivor at a time by having the younger generation interview the older generation.

Jane Wells and Nicki Pombier Berger of 3 Generations recently interviewed Socheata about her film, her foundation and cultural regeneration:

3G: We’re very excited to start the regeneration element of 3 Generations’ work with your film. It was so wonderful, elegant and moving and made us cry. Do people always cry when they see it?

SP: That’s pretty common I have to say. It tends to stay with people, which is kind of amazing, and tells me that there’s a lot there that people are still kind of processing the day after they see it.

3G: Why did you decide to tell your story and do this investigation as a film?

SP: My background was in television and I had always thought about perhaps writing something, but making a film seemed more reachable for me in terms of my skill sets, even though I’d never made a film before. It really is so different producing short news packages than it was making a feature length documentary that was really emotional. It  was a whole different kind of animal. But I didn’t know any of that going in so I didn’t have…I didn’t know enough to even be intimidated by the process. I just jumped in.

3G: So did [your background in news] help you find the narrative thread in the story?

SP: My background in news helped me understand the work flow but the kind of storytelling that gets done in news shows and independent documentaries is so different. I had to do a lot of work in order to become a good storyteller in terms of the documentary genre. I watched a ton of documentaries and really studied them and what made them work, and then I really hired people who were veterans and had done this many, many times. Especially my editor, she’s someone who is known in the field as someone who is excellent at editing documentary films.

3G: Did you know before you set out to film about the mystery of your parents’ marriage, or the uncovering of that, or was that really a surprise?

SP: It really was a surprise in the film, and I didn’t know that was going to be a question that I would structure the narrative around until much later. Even in the editing room, that’s when we decided to have that unfold at the end of the second act. When we started I just knew there was a lot I didn’t know and a lot I didn’t understand, and so I really wanted to learn all of these things as I was in production, as we were shooting it. So there was a lot of work on the narrative that happened in the editing room.

New Year Baby

3G: What other ideas did you have for the narrative?

SP: When I first started I didn’t want my voice to be in the film at all, I really saw this as the story of my family and my parents. I didn’t feel the need to be in front of the camera or to be voicing it at all. And I thought there’d be just kind of one timeline, which was the historical recounting of the events that happened to them during the Khmer Rouge time. It was only later that I realized that the story was my transformation as well. Being their daughter who knew nothing, who was cut off from the family secret, and my process of uncovering these secrets, and how I as the second generation have to resolve the legacy of genocide. And how I can be kind of a stand in for the future of the Cambodian community itself, in a way.

3G: Was there a point when you were actually filming when you realized you had to put yourself in it or did you do most of it in voiceover?

SP: The producers that I got to work with me were constantly telling me when we were shooting on our first trip that I had to put myself in the film. They wanted me to do a kind of video diary as I was going through the process. I kind of did it begrudgingly thinking that we’d never use it, again because I didn’t want to be in the film. But by the time we went on the second trip, I had accepted this idea that I was a central figure in the story. And so at that point, that’s when I started to be in front of the camera more.

3G: Also you are a unifying factor in the family story.

SP: Yeah, I’m kind of a linchpin for my parents. That’s how I always felt, growing up, and I wasn’t always sure why I was in that position. A lot of the family dynamics became explained.

3G: How has your relationship with your family changed since making the film?

SP: I would say that we can be a little bit more open; especially my sisters can now talk about their biological family. I feel like they’re also talking to me more like an adult. This might be because I’m getting older, too, but before they were afraid to tell me and my brother. They wanted to protect us and they were afraid that they would somehow harm us. But now I think that I’ve really delved into this and have an appetite to know more, they have been forthcoming, about all kinds of things, not just specifically their past, about all sorts of things.

3G: What was it like showing your family the film for the first time?

SP: It was really, really nerve-wracking! Because I didn’t actually show them anything before we were at the very end of the editing process. I showed them on Christmas Day and I sat at the back of the room just kind of shaking and quaking in my boots, and my whole family was there, my extended family, and I was so nervous about what their reaction would be that I decided that if my parents hated the film and didn’t want to talk to me again, I’d try to make it up to them by taking them on a cruise! And this was actually my plan! But thank goodness, after that first screening, they laughed and they cried in all the right places, and what I drew from it was that they felt like it was an honest depiction of themselves and their lives. A few months later they had an opportunity to see the film in a real theater with an audience at a film festival in Dallas, and after the film I invited the whole family to the front of the theater, and the audience gave them a standing ovation. And there was a receiving line of people who wanted to meet my parents and congratulate them and tell them how amazing they are, and I think that was the beginning of a real transformation for them, because this was a story they had been ashamed to tell, and so now to be celebrated for it was hugely affirming for them, and kind of brought them out of their shell in a way. And I think the public affirmation has been very impactful.

3G: You went to film because it was in keeping with your skill set, but film in particular is a medium that can elicit the kind of response that you had in that first screening, it’s a public form of storytelling. Could you talk a little about how the experience of making this film affects the work that you want to do moving forward in terms of finding ways to tell stories that can move an audience and really have an impact like that.

SP: One of the things I witnessed when I was showing the film was the power of a personal narrative in order to connect people emotionally to a part of history that otherwise is very hard to get an emotional reaction out of people. Recently I read this study actually about the fact that there’s something about the human conscience that if you present narratives of suffering through statistics or data, or even just by adding the numbers, that their ability to absorb it and to feel sympathy diminishes as that number increases. Which seems to me really problematic when you’re trying to move a society to prioritize certain things or in order to influence policy. It seems problematic that the bigger the catastrophe, the harder it is to have people emotionally understand it. And so what that means is that the most powerful tool that we can employ to have people be emotionally connected to an issue is a personal story, a personal narrative, sharing the story of one person, and that is something that we as humans can absorb, and then process and react to. And so that’s why I decided to employ this message with Khmer Legacies, in terms of recording stories one at a time, and then presenting them as one individual at a time. In the future we’ll be able to curate them in a way. Specifically, there was an episode that inspired me to create the organization, and it happened in Long Beach, which is the largest community of Cambodian Americans in the country.  I was doing a public forum there between the younger and older generations of Cambodians, talking about the legacy of genocide, and of course one thing I heard over and over again was that the younger generation didn’t know anything about what happened, and their parents don’t talk to them about it. After the forum there was a community leader who came up to me and said, “You know we really need to start documenting some of the stories before some of the survivors get too old and can’t remember and pass on. You’re a filmmaker – you should do it!” And after some initial hesitation and resistance, I saw that this could be the best follow up to the film itself, and there was a way I could channel the interest in the film into something that could have a lasting impact on the Cambodian community.

3G: What impact has New Year Baby had beyond the Cambodian community?

SP: We’ve shown the film all over the world, including places like Israel and places in Eastern Europe, and obviously in Cambodia. And communities or a population that has never heard of Cambodia and never met a Cambodian can still connect to it because of some of the universal themes and values that are presented in it. It’s not exactly a film about the Cambodian genocide but it’s kind of a love story, it involves the journey of the family, and so people can really relate to it on that level. They see similarities and draw parallels with experiences their family or their ancestors may have had. I hear often that people are reminded of their own family, and will actually call their parents to express something after seeing the film, which tells me that they really personalize it when they watch it.

3G: Could you talk a little bit about what happened when you first screened it in Cambodia?

SP: Sure, we did a series of screening a few years ago, and right now in Cambodia it’s being screened with another film house there. The response was pretty overwhelming; in both screenings we had overflow audiences, people sitting in the aisles. And it was very, very emotional. People who usually never really speak about their experience found that the film resonated so much with that that it began to provoke them to want to talk, to want to tell their stories. It was very good that it sparked a kind of conversation.

3G: There’s a sequence in the film where you interview a Khmer Rouge lady who had worked in a hospital where some of your translator’s family had died, and you ask her to apologize to your guide: it’s quite a shocking moment, can you explain a bit more about that sequence?

SP: What I found was that she had probably never talked about her experience. She hadn’t really told her children or her grandchildren anything about what had happened to her. This might have been the first time anyone ever asked her about it, and asked her to be reflective about what her responsibility was, and what her role was during the Khmer Rouge time. This really took her aback; it was as if she had never ever thought about this before. Which is in some ways kind of shocking and disturbing, but in other ways I can kind of see how thousands of people like her have kind of had to build a fortress around that experience and kind of compartmentalize it from the rest of their life and the rest of who they think they are in order to just function in the world. I went into the interview hoping and kind of looking for some kind of feelings of regret about their role that they played, and when I didn’t find that I think it made me even more angry, and less able to deal with the circumstance.

3G: …That’s a huge moral issue…It must be in the air and the soil of the whole country.

SP: It is, it is, but because there haven’t been any institutions that are putting it forth as a part of the national dialogue, I can see how there are thousands of people like her who have easily been able to just not think about it again, and in particular their role in it. Whereas in other societies there have been truth commissions and news and it’s something that is part of the education system; that really hasn’t happened in Cambodia. It’s starting to happen a little bit now, with the tribunal that has started. So perhaps there has been a little bit of change. But up to that point, people were not really asked to consider it.

3G: Do you think the decimation of the intellectual classes and the monks has had an impact on stopping this kind of questioning in subsequent generations?

SP: I think there is something in the culture and perhaps the religion that would incline Cambodians to not want to talk about and revisit it; there just isn’t a value placed on grappling with the past. But of course there’s a political dimension to it as well, in the fact that the current government still has a lot of Khmer Rouge elements in it, and there’s a desire to not implicate oneself. So it’s hard to really divide the cultural contributions and the political pressure.

3G: On the Khmer Legacies web site you have some interviews with young Cambodians saying they can’t believe it happened or they don’t believe it happened or they just don’t know what happened, and part of the work of the video testimonials is to create a conversation between the younger generation of Cambodians and survivors. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the generational aspect of your work, and how you can encourage other people to take the kind of journeys that you do in your film.

SP: When I first envisioned Khmer Legacies I envisioned the younger generation would be interviewing the parents about their lives and their experiences, and so the interview process would be kept in the family structure. But what I soon realized was that, especially here in America, some relationships between parents and children are so strained, and there is such a divide, that some survivors will talk to an outsider before they would be willing to say these things to their children. And so I’ve opened it up so that the interviewees don’t necessarily have to be related to the survivors themselves. But our efforts are absolutely to help to bridge the divide between the older generation and the younger generations. So that’s the second mission of Khmer Legacies.  And one of the ways that can be done is through the interview process, and another way is just through providing these tools for people to have more understanding and knowledge about this part of history.

3G: Have you thought at all about how this will pass on to third generation?

SP: Well, I know that there are certain patterns that the generations following a catastrophe like genocide go through; often the surviving generation is so traumatized and it’s so hard to deal with it that they just bury it, and the second generation tries to get these stories out, and then the third generation, I think, kind of continues the work of the second generation, but also has enough distance that they’re a little bit less suffering the effects of the trauma. So maybe the healing really can happen fully in the third generation. And so my hope is that that pattern persists with Cambodians as well, and that it’s really the third generation that can truly fulfill the mission of Khmer Legacies.

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