Mention the word “holocaust” and the first images that leap to mind are of the horrific attempt by Hitler’s Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jewish population in World War 2. Similar, if less extensive examples of such “ethnic cleansing” have occurred much more recently. Slobodan Milosevic’s rebuffed incursion into Kosovo comes to mind, as do the clashes in Rwanda or even our ol’ pal Saddam Hussein’s gassing of “his” Kurdish population, all in the last decade.
Yet, one notorious example of genocide is slipping from our global memory; that of the Khmer Rouge’s campaign to rid Cambodia, not of a particular race or minority population, but of anyone with any sort of education who might resist dictator Pol Pot’s crude attempt at forced collective labor camps.
“The Flute Player,” director Jocelyn Glatzer’s moving documentary, humanizes this tragedy by introducing viewers to Arn Chorn Pond. Imprisoned as a boy in one of the Khmer Rouge death camps, Arn was forced to play a flute for his captors’ entertainment. Far worse, however, was his being forced to participate in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen…or face the same gruesome fate himself.
Ordered to the front when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, Arn ran away, eventually winding up adopted by an American relief worker at the age of sixteen in a Thai refugee camp. As he grew up in New Hampshire, Arn became an at-first inadvertent, then increasingly vocal spokesman on Cambodian human rights, alerting the world to the atrocities the Khmer Rouge had committed in his native country.
Armed only with his flute and his harrowing story, the Amnesty International Human Rights Award Winner also teaches his native music to stateside Cambodian kids and, more importantly, travels extensively to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. There he seeks out the few surviving masters of traditional Cambodian music, organizing efforts to record their performances and enlisting them to pass on their knowledge to todays’ generation as a way of coming to terms with his past, thus easing his guilt for his complicity in the tragic events of his own youth.
Watching “The Flute Player” is a sobering experience, yet one that also offers tempered hope. The film does feel very staged at times, while Arn occasionally comes across as such a smoothly polished, relentlessly on-message spokesman, that it’s easy to forget the truly awful things he saw and experienced; images that fuel his tireless passion for his cause.
The film is on much more solid ground when Arn is recruiting the old master musicians. Here, the film feels like a sort of Cambodian “Buena Vista Social Club,” although the survivors’ sadness about all that was lost permeates these gatherings.
Ultimately, “The Flute Player” is a powerful reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit. Although it’s a bit too self-aware for its own good at times, it will nonetheless be an effective companion piece for Arn as he continues on his global crusade of awareness.