‘New Year Baby’ chronicles family’s tragic story

First-time director Socheata Poeuv wants 100 million people to see her film and understand the story of her family’s exodus from the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. She wants them to leave moved and appreciative, equipped with a new outlook on life as tempered by human heroism.
It takes two minutes of listening to Poeuv’s passion and determination to realize such a lofty goal is more a promise than a wish.

Her award-winning documentary “New Year Baby” will screen at the Kentucky Center next Wednesday (Feb. 13), opposite the traveling Broadway show “Sweeney Todd.” One would hope that Kentuckians could eschew the demon barber for a single night to see it.

Poeuv, who was born on the Cambodian New Year in a refugee camp in Thailand, grew up in Texas. It was on a Christmas Day five years ago that her father called a meeting and broke the silence about her family’s past.
“My whole life I’d been raised in this perfect, nuclear family,” Poeuv tells LEO. “And then my parents told us that my sisters were really my cousins and that my brother was a half-brother.”

Poeuv also learned that her parents’ marriage was arranged, and at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge genocide, her mother’s previous husband and daughter were killed, as were her cousins’ parents. Like many Cambodians, Poeuv says, the people to whom she was closest had never spoken of the past. Whereas the entire world knows of the Holocaust, some Cambodians are still kept in the dark about Pol Pot’s Communist Regime, he a tyrant who ordered the killing of an estimated 750,000 to 1.7 million people some 25 years ago.
Despite the dark subject matter, Poeuv said her documentary focuses more on the healing of wounds and hope for the future.

“I hope that people don’t look at the poster for ‘New Year Baby’ and think that it’s just an Asian story, or an Asian film,” says Poeuv. “One of the challenges has been getting this message out. It is about universal values — family, love and forgiveness.”

After starting Broken English Productions with producer/partner Charles Vogl, Poeuv quit her job at NBC’s “Dateline” in January of last year, a decision her mother lamented, wondering if her daughter would soon be homeless. Poeuv wrote in an online journal at the time: “Sometimes I feel exhilarated, like this is the beginning to my real life.”

Indeed. Starting with the film’s premiere in Amsterdam at the International Documentary Festival in November of 2006, where it received a standing ovation, “New Year Baby” has appeared in more than 20 film festivals and has won “Best Documentary” honors at both AFI Dallas and the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival. It has also garnered several audience-favorite awards, a testament to its effect.

In addition to near-constant touring, Poeuv has begun work on a new nonprofit organization called “Khmer Legacies,” in which she hopes to document Cambodian children interviewing their parents about the past; the footage will be stored in a video archive that is keyword searchable.

Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, with its 52,000 online testimonies from Holocaust survivors, is an inspiration, and Poeuv spoke with members of that organization for advice.
“When I asked how much money was involved, they said ‘$11 million to $100 million,’ and I started to feel intimidated,” Poeuv says.

Poeuv wrote in her online journal, “Sometimes naiveté is the access to courage.” Similarly, Poeuv’s original estimate for the production cost of “New Year Baby” was $75,000 — that proved to be $925,000 short. For Poeuv, Khmer Legacies was a cause worth getting into, regardless of the risks, and she has a history of making such ventures succeed.

“My idea is that if I continue to be steadfast and I take this national, people will start to think this has merit,” says Poeuv. “There’s a great quote from Gandhi: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’ … I think I’m in the first stage.”
Asked if she’s had a Brad Pitt-caliber celebrity come up to her, ready to champion her cause, Poeuv laughs.
“No, not yet. But that would be nice.”

Socheata Poeuv will host a discussion after Wednesday’s screening. For more information, visit www.newyearbaby.net. Contact the writer at [email protected]

Southern Tour of Independent Filmmakers presents Socheata Poeuv’s documentary “New Year Baby”
Wednesday, Feb. 13
Clark-Todd Hall, Kentucky Center
501 W. Main St.
$6.50; 7 p.m.