In Cambodia, “What Matters is to Stay Alive”

Jul 30, 2010
*Special to asia!

A Cambodian filmmaker and survivor of the killing fields shines a unique light on the tragedy of her people through her film, “Survive”.

Three years, eight months and 20 days. That’s how long the horror was for Cambodians under the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. This decimated almost a quarter of the population, about 1.7 million people, through disease, overwork, torture and execution. The whole world knows about the genocide. To some, Cambodia is a byword for horror.

Its society still lives in a fragile context. The atrocities – too painful to talk about – have been burned into their memories and yet ask any ordinary Khmer, he will be tight-lipped to relive the past. Their Buddhist religion has helped them move on, teaching that suffering is a universal truth and resignation is a must to get by. But for the past 30 years, courageous victims have voiced out their painful experiences in books, films and blogs.  40-year old filmmaker and Khmer Rouge survivor, Roshane Saidnattar, is one of them.


Roshane was born in 1970 in Phnom Penh to a Cambodian mother and a father of mixed Indian parentage. Her childhood saw nothing but terror and violence in Cambodia – the bombing by the Americans during the Vietnam war, the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, and occupation by the Vietnamese army. At the age of 13, Roshane and her family fled from Cambodia and went to France, where she found freedom and individual rights.   

She first studied ancient Khmer and comparative literature at the French School of the Far East in Paris, then got a diploma in filmmaking. In 1998 she went back to her country of birth, planning never to leave it. She worked as a journalist for a local TV channel, TVK, and tried to make movies. But political instability and the place of women in Cambodian society did not allow her to dedicate herself fully and freely to being a film director. She decided to return to France.  

Her first full-length film, “L’important c’est de rester vivant” (Survive, In the Heart of the Khmer Rouge Madness) which took four years to complete, is an intimate and poignant testimony to her country’s past.

In the movie, she interviews Khieu Samphan, Democratic Kampuchea’s head of state from 1975 to 1979. He served alongside Pol Pot, leader of the notorious communist movement, the Khmer Rouge. Face to face with her former oppressor for three weeks, Roshane seeks to understand the motivations behind the mass killings.

It took her years to secure her interview with Khieu Samphan. Roshane says, “He said yes to me because I’m a woman. As a woman, people say you’re weak and gullible, so I let him believe I was that way during filming.”

Juxtaposed with the filmmaker’s own memories, and with unscreened archival material, the film also shows Roshane, her mother and her daughter as they make an emotional journey back to the hamlet where she’d been a child slave of the revolution.

Roshane was six when she was separated from her family and forced to labour in the fields to fulfil Pol Pot’s dreams of an agrarian utopia (dystopia).  In a mass expulsion, urban residents of almost two million were herded to the countryside. Many perished in the exodus, which targeted hatred against the ‘haves’ and city-dwellers of Cambodian society. They were thought to be in league with the US imperialists, and thus collectively responsible for the suffering of the peasantry. All intellectuals and foreigners were then asked to return to the capital. Her father believed them and went back with his parents, who were originally from Pondicherry. Her mother refused to go back to the city knowing it was certain death. Years later, Roshane learned her father had been expelled from the country along with other foreigners.

She adds, “And then you couldn’t use money, there is no value. As a child I saw my mother work really hard to earn money. And suddenly, it was useless.”

Money, markets and the education system were abolished. Like the Maoist ideology of self-reliance, the movement had only contempt and animosity for learning and expertise. In that time’s social order, the farm is their school. “The land is their paper, the plough, their pen.”

The Khmer Rouge took the children and separated them from their mothers and fathers so they can be indoctrinated. Brainwashed. They encouraged children to find fault with their own parents and spy on them.

Many died from a careless word. Her aunt let slip that she was a teacher and her whole family was taken away and never seen again. No one could protest or cry. Crying can also mean death.


She recalls sleeping in the jungles, shivering in the cold, constantly hungry, and having to carry human excrement with her bare hands to fertilize the soil.

She distinctly remembers what her mother said to her when she snuck into the women’s commune one summer night, “You will be with me. Work hard, always harder than the others and put up with all the work they inflict. I will come for you. What matters is to stay alive.”

Exhausted by work, her mother grew too weak. She was given injections of coconut juice (medicine was not allowed then) and eventually sent to the children’s village to plant rice. This was how they were reunited. Roshane and her mother were lucky to have survived three years, eight months and 20 days in the killing fields.

She says a film can never fully describe the real suffering the Cambodians experienced. “I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about my country, all made by westerners – all the time about killing, torture and suffering. But for us who are victims, it wasn’t just starvation and overwork that destroyed us. It was the total loss of identity, we had to deny who we are.”

“That I think is the most crucial part that foreigners can never tell in their books and movies because they never experienced that. You had to behave like an ignorant and crazy person all the time. And if you do it all the time, you become that way.”

They tried to make me ignorant and take away my life. But look at me now. I’ve created my own, built a family. I have avenged myself through my movie.

“They tried to make me ignorant and take away my life. But look at me now. I’ve created my own, built a family. I have avenged myself through my movie.”

It’s crucial to tell the story of what actually happened. Roshane believes it was the neglect of the international community that prolonged the monstrosity happening in her country.

The rest of the world may reduce the immense tragedy in Cambodia to a city-country divide, a revolt on social inclusion but Roshane knows better.  For her, their small country was used as a pawn in the global battle against communism.

Carmela Mendoza runs everything "behind the scenes" at asia! She's also a content creator for mobile phone books and applications. She previously worked for education and ICT initiatives in the Philippines.

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