- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2017

Robert H. Lieberman, a physicist at Cornell, knew he had to turn to a certain kind of documentary filmmaking. Mr. Lieberman’s parents escaped Austria during the Second World War while most of their relatives were exterminated in Hitler’s pogroms.

Knowing something of genocide, he turned his sights first on Myanmar for 2012’s “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” and now to a country with an even more complicated history.

“What happens with the next generation? Not those who obviously suffered, but do the effects continue on?” Mr. Lieberman told The Washington Times of the impetus behind his new film, “Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia.”

Furthermore, Mr. Lieberman discovered in researching the new documentary that the children of Cambodians who survived Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue purges were told very little by their elders. (Mr. Lieberman’s parents refused to speak German in public after emigrating to the U.S., he said.)

“It turns out there’s something called epigenetics. Good studies show that trauma that’s been visited upon adults, part of their children’s DNA has been modified,” Mr. Lieberman said of how the children of the genocide’s survivors can still be affected by the terror even though they themselves perhaps never even lived in Cambodia.

Mr. Lieberman interviews both survivors and their children, as well as historians and politicians about the situation in Cambodia, which was inextricably linked to the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s “secret” bombing of Cambodia to try to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“Even though it was not solely responsible, it was partly responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rogue,” Mr. Lieberman said. “So you have to go through this very dark period to come out the other end to paint a complete portrait of a country.”

When the Khmer Rogue seized control of Cambodia in 1975, the regime began evacuating city populations to the countryside, to forced labor camps where torture was rampant. Estimates vary, but nearly 2 million people were likely killed during the four years the Khmer Rogue was in power.

“Cambodia is a bit unique in [that] it’s an auto-genocide,” Mr. Lieberman said, saying that there was no “other” in the Khmer Rogue’s massacre of its own people. “This was actually Khmer killing Khmer.”

Mr. Lieberman wishes to impart that mistakes such as the U.S. attempting to win the “hearts and minds” throughout Southeast Asia failed due to a failure of Western imagination to understand Eastern cultures.

“There’s a lesson to be learned about going into foreign countries where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture and you try to control them,” he said.

Despite the Khmer Rogue now a distant memory, Mr. Lieberman cautions that strongman leader Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia in some form for decades.

“It’s happening around the world,” he said, pointing also to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently winning a ballot to grant him even more power. “I think that’s the takeaway that it’s relevant today.”

Mr. Lieberman, who will be in the District this weekend for screenings at the Landmark E Street Cinema, says it continues to be a struggle for documentary filmmakers like himself to find funding.

“There’s a tradition of supporting cinema in Europe and Canada, but nothing [in the U.S.] to speak of,” he said. “Funding is always a fight. It’s the biggest hurdle to making a film.”

And once a film is made, the struggle is then to actually get it seen.

“Many make a film and then they wait for people to beat a path to their door,” Mr. Lieberman said, adding that 75 percent of making a film is promoting it. “No one’s coming, even if it’s brilliant,” he said.

Mr. Lieberman spent four years working on “Angkor Awakens,” thus showing that, despite the odds — and much like the subjects he profiles in his film — there remains hope.

“In the darkest moments I never thought it would work,” he said of the end product. “I think it ends on a hopeful note too.”

“Angkor Awakens” opens Friday at the District’s E Street Cinema. Director Robert H. Lieberman will be present for Q&A Sunday at 1:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Monday at 7:30 p.m.

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