I’m back to refresh myself. I’m working on editing my second Glimpse piece. I wrote it over the summer and haven’t looked at it in months, so when I got Sarah’s comments, it all felt vague and faraway. I knew I needed something to kickstart me.
To be honest, I haven’t been thinking much about my project, or the Khmer Rouge, or any of it. Last time I’d arrived, it’d been on my mind constantly, a lens I saw everything through: everyone over 35 was a survivor. I couldn’t turn it off, and I’d hit the ground running, dove right in to the research and writing, the quest to understand.
And it’s not like I’ve forgotten all that—I can feel it, sitting there, off to the side and waiting, in the corner of the room when I can’t sleep at night—but my focus has been elsewhere. Getting an apartment. Buying all the crap I need—dishes and towels and non-neon-plastic chairs and Western bedsheets (really effing hard to find, btw). Reconnecting with the friends I’ve got left, and making new ones. Getting a phone and internet and finding a good laundry place and all that very unglamorous day-to-day stuff that’s part of life, part of living somewhere.
So I’ve pushed it all aside, knowing that it was waiting and that I’d come to it when I was ready (and, really, I’ve only been back two weeks). So it was with a little hesitation that I went to Bophana, took off my shoes and climbed the steps, climbed back in to The Reason I Came, and the thick-as-mud emotional difficulty of it all.
Most of the newsreels are in French, and I watch ones from the Thai refugee camps, 79-80; I watch the same newscaster in different suits, and fish out token words of French: “famine,” “guerre,” “mort.” Mostly I look at the faces, which are shell-shocked and gaunt.
I scroll down, down, down the list of archives, never-ending, thinking how long it would take someone to watch it all. I see “Rediscovered Propaganda Films” and click on it. There’s an English dubbed version, which is exciting. I watch and listen.
They show short films produced during the Khmer Rouge and narrate. They show staged shots from the camps, aerials of people like ants, carrying hoes and buckets, balanced on a stick over their shoulders, the way the soup ladies at the market do. They show close-ups of carefully selected workers smiling; they point out child workers and how to tell who was a New Person and who was an Old Person. They show clips of a poorly acted film Pol Pot directed, shortly before the regime fell—men reenact the defeat of Lon Nol’s army, twitching on the ground with arrows arranged around their bodies. The film was never made, and the shots I see now, in the dim viewing room, were assembled from found reels. I imagine them on a dirty floor somewhere, curled and brown.
The narrator points out inconsistencies: no one was supposed to have bourgeois personal items like watches or eyeglasses. But here’s Pol Pot, that smiling cult leader face, wearing a watch, and here’s Brother Number Three, wearing glasses, and here’s the regional leader Brother Number Two snubs, who’s later deemed a traitor and tortured and destroyed, along with his family. They freeze the frame on him, and he’s smiling, smiling.
This scene is at a party meeting; women with Soviet semi-automatic weapons march, and US artillery tanks roll past, left over from Lon Nol’s time. The setting looks vaguely familiar, and the narrator says: “The meeting took place in the otherwise empty Phnom Penh, at the Olympic Stadium.”
Holy shit, I think. Olympic Stadium is in the city center, near the guesthouse I stayed at when I arrived. Every dawn and dusk, they do aerobic dancing there, and people run and powerwalk and swing their limbs around; food vendors set up carts and plastic stools, and men play soccer in the dirt lot outside.
It’s my favorite place to go running in the city. In fact, I’m planning on going for a jog there tonight.
I squint at the screen and it’s all there: the steps I run, the contour of the stone tiers, the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background. It’s newer and cleaner and nicer in the footage, but it’s the same place.
I don’t know what to do with that.
I walk back to my apartment with a funny little feeling in my stomach, like I’ve seen a ghost—like I’ve gotten up in the middle of night and everything familiar looks strange and different, and the thing that was sitting there waiting for me isn’t in the corner anymore but is moving across the room.
I put on my running shoes and spray some more mosquito repellent on, grab a water and go back downstairs, to the street to catch a motorbike over to the stadium.
It’s surreal when I get there. I walk past the rows of motorbikes and cars, the tuk-tuks covered in ads for the new Twilight movie. Teenage boys stare at me as I walk past their soccer game, say “Hello, hello!”
I walk beside the arena, which is locked and closed, my own face in the tinted windows. It was where the meeting had been, in the newsreel. I walk past where the shot of Pol Pot wearing a watch was, where Brother Number Two and Brother Number Three had trailed behind him, wearing eyeglasses and giving silent death sentences to smiling men.
A young boy carries a sack on his shoulder. He picks a plastic bottle out of the trash.
He walks closer to me, his eyes scouring the ground of recyclables.
I say hello, in Khmer, hand him my empty water bottle.
He smiles and puts it in his sack.
I say thank you, and walk towards the track, to jog where the tanks once rolled.