After fleeing one of the cruelest political regimes ever documented, Socheata Poeuv’s parents focused on giving their kids a “normal American life.” That meant leaving Cambodia, escaping to Thailand and then moving the family to Carrollton.
It wasn’t until Christmas Day 2002 that Poeuv (pictured) learned a secret her parents had been keeping for 25 years. Poeuv’s older sisters weren’t really her sisters at all, and her brother was only her half-brother, the child of her mother’s previous marriage.
“My mother claims she wanted to tell us 10 years earlier, but didn’t feel like we were ready, so she put it off and put it off,” Poeuv said. “I felt shocked. I felt a little bit betrayed that my family thought I couldn’t be trusted with this information.”
Those secrets as well stories from some of the millions of other Cambodians who escaped the deadly Khmer Rouge, are the focus of Poeuv’s award-winning documentary, “New Year Baby.” The documentary will have its television premiere on the PBS series “Independent Lens,” hosted by Terrence Howard, May 27 at 10 p.m.
“The documentary film really started as a glorified home video,” said Poeuv, a 1998 graduate of R.L. Turner High School. “There were some incredibly emotional and intimate moments, very compelling. I knew if we continued to pursue it, it was worth a larger film.”
Armed with a video camera and the knowledge that her nuclear family wasn’t completely nuclear, Poeuv traveled to Cambodia with her parents, retracing the family’s path and picking up the lost pieces of her history along the way. “There are more secrets that were revealed in the process … labor camps, the refugee camp where I was born. You really got a window into what happened to people in that time and see the emotions in the legacy still wrapped up in that trauma. The tagline is ‘What does it take to heal?’ That is the inquiry of the film.”
Poeuv’s parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of a documentary at first.
“That is the central conflict. I wanted to uncover history and they didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” she said. “Now since my family has seen the film, they’ve come to be very proud of the story.”
Aptly named “New Year Baby” because Poeuv was born on April 13, the Cambodian New Year, the documentary uses animation to illustrate the family memories and the country’s history. In less then four years, more than 1.7 million Cambodians—about one-fourth of the population—died from starvation, disease or execution. Poeuv hopes the film will open people’s eyes to a different kind of story they would probably never encounter in their life.
“Mainly I want them to be moved and entertained by the story,” she said.
After graduating from Turner, Poeuv attended SMU for one year, then transferred to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and majored in English literature. She then moved to New York City to pursue a journalism career and worked at the “Today” show. She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Yale University Genocide Studies Program.
Poeuv is also the CEO of Khmer Legacies, a non-profit organization whose mission is to create a video archive about the Cambodian genocide. Khmer Legacies has a goal of videotaping thousands of testimonies of Cambodian survivors by having the children interview their parents.
“I wanted to be able to channel the interest in the film to a program that would have a lasting impact on the Cambodian community,” she said.