Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, a film by Ellen Bruno, 30 minutes, available from Samsara: Film Library, 22D Hollywood Avenue, HoHo-Kus, New Jersey 07423.
Rebuilding the Temple: Cambodians in America, a film by Claudia Levin and Lawrence Hott, 60 minutes, available in English and Khmer from Direct Cinema Limited, Box 69799, Los Angeles, California 90069.
In Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia, Ellen Bruno retells a Cambodian Buddhist prophecy as scenes of Phnom Penh move in silent slow motion: “A darkness will fall on the people of Cambodia. There will be homes but no people in them. There will be roads but no travelers upon them. The land will be ruled by barbarians without religion. There will be blood in the streets as to touch the belly of an elephant. Only the deaf and the mute will survive.” This chilling vision, brought to life during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, is quietly, affectingly portrayed here while voices of Cambodian survivors tell their stories. Clearly shaken and deeply hurt, these people are shown rebuilding their lives and evidencing a resilience and dignity that draws on the very beliefs challenged by the holocaust.
Throughout this documentary (photographed on location in Cambodia by Ellen Kuras) we hear recitations of Buddhist texts, but this is neither a religious nor a polemical work. Full of personal stories and poignant images, Samsara is an at times painful, authentic, respectful, and in the end, moving look at suffering and perseverance. The issue of violence within a Buddhist country (and Cambodia is not alone) will have to wait for a longer film to be adequately addressed.
Rebuilding the Temple: Cambodians in America by Claudia Levin and Lawrence Hott examines the influence of Buddhist culture on Cambodian refugees as they adjust to American life. (Approximately 150,000 people fled Pol Pot’s regime and many settled in refugee communities in New England, Maryland, California, Oregon, and Texas.) The film offers a short history lesson as well as a Buddhist primer with an explanation of the Hindu and spirit worship elements of Khmer practice. It makes good use of on-camera interviews with a variety of Cambodians (including Dith Pran and Maha Ghosananda) and cross cuts these with images of refugee life in America. As with most non-Western cultures, Cambodian traditional dress, food, rituals, and beliefs stand in stark contrast to our consumer society. And yet, a scene of an ordination parade with a novice monk standing in a slowly moving Corvette convertible as a procession of traditionally dressed Cambodians follows, seems somehow natural.
Still there is a growing feeling among Cambodians that advancement here will be easier outside of their own religion. One says, “It’s hard to be a good Buddhist in this country. We are thrown into a very competitive situation. You have to be number one, you have to be the winner in order to make it in this country, and you see it everywhere, you see it on TV, on ads, everything.” Attached as they are to their traditions (several large temples are now being constructed in the United States) there is clearly a growing adaptability among both the young American-raised refugees—as would be expected—and among the various adult communites. This is a complex transition, not without parallel here, but when Maha Ghosananda says, “Cambodian culture is Buddhist culture. Buddhism survives, then the culture survives,” we’re not so sure.
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