Friday, February 17, 2017

New Year Baby (2006) 3 of 4

New Year Baby is a documentary about the Khmer Rouge genocide, which occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s.  Specifically, it's the filmmaker's personal inquiry into her Cambodian-American family, several of whom gradually become more responsive to questions during a trip back to Cambodia.

From the world point of view, the news of the Khmer Rouge gave notice that genocide was not an historical anomaly but a pattern.  Subsequent events, of course, have confirmed this.  I remember this genocide achieving mass consciousness only with the release of The Killing Fields in 1984, approximately five years after the end of the genocide.  This delayed acknowledgement is part of the pattern.

I'll admit I had trouble adjusting to the gentle rhythms of New Year Baby, although that says more about me than about the film.  I've seem many movies and shows in my life, and most of those were made by men (behind the camera).

It seems to me that New Year Baby is a more feminine film (the title refers to the filmmaker's birthday being the Cambodian New Year).  That is, it focuses on how events and decisions affected a small group of people, especially their relationships.  The broader story of the genocide is covered in impressive animated sequences, but the film's emphasis is not facts, figures, or historical parallels.  This approach also allows the film to be suitable for all ages, despite the challenging subject. 

New Year Baby is about acceptance, compassion, and human growth.  It doesn't spend much emotion placing blame; the facts speak for themselves.  Those who survived did so through a mixture of heroism, blending in, and luck.

The fact that sticks with me is that the filmmaker's parents were matched (by the then authorities)  because they were so different (different class background, etc.).  The Khmer Rouge were high on this sort of thing, as they tried to remake their nation into a collectivist utopia at the point of a gun.  The matching of opposites could easily be made into a reality show by 2017 Hollywood, in the vein of Beauty and the Geek and Wife Swap.  My point is that the madness of genocide doesn't grow from this or that religion or political viewpoint, but from a mix of ideology, fanaticism and hatred.  I have to believe that latent self-hatred is a precondition for any attempted genocide.

I tend to see things politically/historically, so I'll continue in this vein, though New Year Baby gracefully refrains from such analysis.  

As far back as I remember (the 1970s), genocide has been a present topic of learning and discussion. What has changed, because of our inability to stop it, is a desperate emphasis on predicting the next genocide, which has now devolved into ugly rhetoric: we are quick to call our foes Nazis, and quick to identify ourselves with the victims of genocide.  Even aside from matters of taste, this is simply inaccurate: whether we admit it or not, history indicates that we are all potential genocideers.  Not all of us would wield the weapon, but all would at least be tempted to look the other way.

Our leaders use the rhetoric of genocide; the day's enemy is always the next Hitler, especially if war is in the plans.  What we've seen is that fighting "the next Hitler" is as likely to cause mass murder as prevent it.  In both Southeast Asia and in the Middle East, U.S. wars devastated and destabilized the region, leaving a power vacuum for the Khmer Rouge and ISIS, respectively.

As an American, I feel a little guilty about this, but not all that much, because I had nothing to do with those decisions.  Those wars were run by people who had themselves avoided combat, if not most types of hardship.  (I believe this is disastrous.  The best leaders have been through hardship: George Washington was a combat veteran, Abraham Lincoln had crippling depression, FDR had polio.)  Whatever their motives, those who prosecuted recent wars lacked the hard-won wisdom and humility of those interviewed in New Year Baby.