With the opening shots of "New Year Baby," first-time filmmaker Socheata Poeuv paints a picture that tells a thousand stories about herself, her siblings, her parents and the lives of millions of Cambodians whose lives were permanently changed by the genocide at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
In the film's opening shots, Poeuv has gathered with her three siblings and parents for a Christmas celebration that turns into a life-changing revelation from her parents that Socheata's sisters are actually her cousins, her brother is actually a step-brother from her mother's previous marriage and, most tragically, that both parents and all three siblings were survivors of Khmer Rouge's genocide that decimated 25% of Cambodia's population.
As a result of this revelation, Socheata and brother Scott agree to accompany Ma and Pa on a visit to Cambodia, a country they have not returned to in three decades. "New Year Baby" follows the Poeuv family as they return to their homeland, tell their stories, visit long lost family and friends and come face-to-face with two members of the Khmer Rouge.
Poeuv and her parents were all present at the film's recent screening during the Heartland Film Festival, where the film received a Crystal Heart Award. On film, as in real life, the love between parents and child is obvious and, despite the frequent resistance of her parents to reveal details of the tragedies during the genocide, Socheata Poeuv has fashioned a remarkably tender, revealing and intimate documentary that is as much about courage and the resilience of human spirit as it is about the tragedy that unfolded in Cambodia.
What is so completely refreshing about "New Year Baby" is that it isn't filled with false bravado and tall tales, but with the simple humility of a man and a woman forced together under the most difficult of circumstances and how they not only survive, but thrive.
In many ways, "New Year Baby" is a love song to the Poeuv family, to Cambodia and to their unshakeable faith that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
Where Poeuv could not find graphics or footage to include in her film, she beautifully incorporates the graphics of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger with a precision and poignancy that brings to mind 2006's affecting Australian feature "Look Both Ways."
Jason Bolling's cinematography beautifully captures the wonders of Cambodia, the tenderness of its people and, yes, at times the heartbreaking wounds that remain as the Poeuv family visits one place after another.
"New Year Baby" occasionally falters, especially during Socheata Poeuv's interview scenes with Khmer Rouge members. Poeuv's interviewing skills are rather soft, and her rather obvious questions insufficiently address the remarkable intensity of the scene itself. It is, in fact, the presence of and unexpected revelation by the family's guide that really provides the scene with its emotional depth.
By the time the film ended and the post-screening Q&A had begun, Socheata Poeuv and her parents had become people for whom we deeply cared. Listening to Ma and Pa talk about the journey home and the process of turning the journey into a film was as much a gift as the film itself.
"New Year Baby" continues on the film festival circuit. Filmed on a modest $330,000 budget, "New Year Baby" is proof positive that sometimes it is a filmmaker's heart and soul that matters more than their budget.
While "New Year Baby" is unrated, please be aware that the film does contain quite a few graphic photographs that would likely be disturbing to young viewers and, quite possibly, to survivors of trauma.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic