Movie Review: What I See When I Close My Eyes

What I See When I Close My Eyes
Documentary, 29 min
Directed by Leslie Hope
Landlocked: Saturday, August 23, 12:30pm as part of the kid-friendly program.

The Khmer Rouge just cannot catch a break. Every director since Roland Joffe has wanted to portray them as the Asian equivalent of the Third Reich, despite the fact that decades of political corruption and internecine power struggles since the war probably have as much to do with the poverty level in modern Cambodia as Pol Pot’s tyranny did. Blaming aside, though, the overcrowded and under-resourced streets of today’s Phnom Penh are not a place one would want to live; yet some 20,000 homeless and parentless children do. Leslie Hope’s film, What I See When I Close My Eyes, documents the lives of some of these children through their contact with the Friends International project, which runs an art school for displaced youth.

This short film is told almost exclusively through the voices of the children involved as well as through the artwork they create, most notably life-size self portraits that are essentially composite images of their life experiences. Though the film’s short running time and the limited information we are given about any of the individual kids hinders our ability to identify with any one of them very much, Hope does a nice job in showing the development of their individuals art projects and the way they work as sort of miniature autobiographies. The self-portraits read like hieroglyphs of each child’s difficult past, with symbols or representations of specific events and people that have shaped the tumultuous, and sometimes horrifying, lives of these young Cambodians.

Audiences, especially American ones, may be somewhat uncomfortable with the cheerleading that some of the students seem to do, since several segments of the film come off pretty much like a commercial for Friends International (there is an especially painful scene in which several young boys are asked to list off all the sweet stuff they have learned from their time in the Friends program, with the organization logo prominently displayed on the building behind them). The world of the Iraq occupation perhaps makes us more cynical than we should be about the nature and politics of aid agencies and NGOs. Are their product placements and advertising any better or worse than those of Coke or Nike? These are not questions that Leslie Hope’s film cares much about, and they may not be ones the kids in it care much about either. These young Cambodian artists would probably tell us to quit wringing our hands and just look at their pictures.

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