Born in a Thai refugee camp on the Cambodian New Year, Poeuv was deemed by her family “the lucky one,” fated to good fortune. As a child growing up in the United States, she knew that her parents had survived brutal oppression and genocide under the Khmer Rouge, but they never spoke of it aloud, and she had never witnessed any atrocities firsthand. Nevertheless, black-clothed figures made their way into her nightmares, and lurked in the shadows of her bedroom.
Twenty-five years later in the suburbs of Texas, her parents make a startling admission, and the impact of the Khmer Rouge suddenly becomes very real. Impelled to confront and give human face to her childhood shadows, Poeuv travels to Cambodia to unravel the mystery shrouding her family’s survival and eventual escape. Her voyage parallels her family’s emotional journey through a series of revelations: unimaginable sacrifice; promises made and kept; the fierce and solemn love for those who were left behind, and finally, one long unsung hero, a “Cambodian cowboy,” is unveiled.
With disarming candor, humor and poetic animation Poeuv’s debut feature resurrects memory and personal history to reclaim her family’s past, and what is easily a heartbreaking story also becomes one of triumph. Winner of both the “Top Ten Audience Pick” and Amnesty International’s “Movies that Matter” award at the 2006 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, New Year Baby is, according to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, a testament to one father’s extraordinary bravery, and the love that binds a family together.
Your film was well received not only by the Cambodian American community, but by other communities whose histories and stories have been shaped by conflict, genocide, and family separation. What kind of contexts has the film been presented in, and which ones have been most meaningful to you?
SP: It’s true that New Year Baby has been embraced by all kinds of audiences beyond Cambodian Americans, from Holocaust survivors in Tel Aviv to Americans in the Midwest. In 2010, we had the opportunity to premiere New Year Baby in Cambodia in an event that was produced by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. They set up a screening in the largest theatre in the country and invited hundreds of young, college-age Cambodians. For many of them, they had never seen a depiction of a young person who would be so bold as to ask her parents about their past under the Khmer Rouge. I like to think that it gave them the courage to explore their own family history. At the very least, the screening gave them an emotional space to remember, reflect, and to feel deeply the collective legacy of genocide.
New Year Baby represents both a personal journey that you and your family made to reconcile your pasts, as well as a documentary film, which chronicles it. How did these two projects connect, or conflict with each other? What role did the filmmaking have in allowing the personal journey to be realized, and were there moments when it stood in the way?
SP: There were many times when my two roles, as director of New Year Baby and as an obedient daughter, came into conflict. This often revolved around certain emotional scenes that I was in the midst of capturing. As a daughter, I often wanted to respect the intimacy of the moment, but as a director, emotional moments are what we’re after. Sometimes you can even see some of that tension in the photography! At the end, I trusted in the relationship I had with my family. And they would eventually become very proud of the emotional truth that New Year Baby depicted.
A central theme of New Year Baby is how one opens up dialogue between generations when the gulf that separates them can be painful and large. While you took the path to make a film about your family to reconcile this; what are tools which others might use to begin to have deeper conversations within their families? What are your thoughts on projects like StoryCorps?
SP: I actually started a non-profit organization called Khmer Legacies (khmerlegacies.org) to help the younger generation learn their history through personal testimonies of the older generation. Those archives are currently in the process of being donated to Yale University. Whether it’s through Khmer Legacies, StoryCorps, or a school project, sometimes these constructs can help to give us the courage to have conversations we might never engage in otherwise.
New Year Baby was completed six years ago, in 2006. Does the process and exploration that you went through to make the film, continue to shape your life and your relationship with your family?
SP: Absolutely! New Year Baby is a document, a clear expression of the love my family has for each other. We can no longer say that love and appreciation has gone unexpressed in my family. It’s a film that my father has probably watched 30 times, getting secondary playtime only to his Cambodian karaoke videos.
What are you working on now?
SP: I’m now running a start-up company called goBlue Labs that is developing a neurotechnology based on meditation which will help people improve their performance and well-being.