Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Documentary as Emotionally Wrenching

There have been times in my life when I have been incredibly moved by works of fiction whether a book, a film, or a television programme. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", for instance, would occasionally move me to tears. I have also occasionally been moved by nonfiction documentaries. Three of the most emotionally powerful documentaries that I have seen in recent years are Patty Kim's and Chris Sheridan's "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota (, Socheata Poeuv's "New Year Baby" (, and Patricia Flynn’s "Discovering Dominga" (

Kim's and Sheridan's "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota documentary from 2006 is a tale of family, families, family obsessions, government secrets, state lies, and North Korean spies. "Abduction" begins its tale of Megumi Yokota by backtracking to the day in November of 1977 when the thirteen year old Megumi never returned home from school. The camera follows Megumi's mother and father as they retrace the route she usually took home from school.

Megumi's parents, of course, thought, as we viewers think at first, that Megumi must have been kidnapped and possibly even murdered. But her body is never found. Soon a disturbing wrinkle in Megumi's disappearance appears. A Japanese journalist whose has been researching and writing on North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens and a former North Korean spy who has defected to the West say that they believe Megumi may indeed have been kidnapped, but kidnapped by a North Korea that has been abducting Japanese citizens for years.

Believing the journalist and the spy Megumi's parents and the parents of other abductees organise and begin to put pressure on the Japanese government to find out what has really happened to their children and whether North Korea has them, something the Japanese government is hesitant to do for larger foreign policy reasons. They want the Japanese government to put pressure on the North Korea in order to force them to admit that they have been abducting Japanese citizens for years. Finally, there is a break in the story. In September of 2002 North Korea admits to the Japanese government that they have been abducting Japanese citizens, the Japanese government claims 17, the North Korean government admits to 13, and that they did abduct Megumi. The number of Japanese kidnapped by the North Korean government, however, probably numbers over a hundred.

Things begin to move quickly in the film once North Korea officially admits to abducting Japanese citizens. In October of 2002 the North Korean government flew five of the abductees home to Japan to very emotional homecomings. The North Korean government claimed that those not returned, including Megumi, were dead, Megumi by suicide. They produced Megumi's husband and daughter to confirm that Megumi was indeed dead.

Soon after the reunions, however, the former North Korean spy who was among the first to reveal that Megumi had been abducted by the North Koreans adds yet another wrinkle to the Megumi Yokota story. He claims that the North Korean government is lying, that Megumi was still alive, and that he had seen her after the date the North Korean government claimed she committed suicide on. Megumi's parents hoping that their daughter may still be alive now demand that the Japanese government put pressure on North Korea to allow DNA tests to be made on Megumi's remains. After some prodding North Korea agrees but the DNA tests performed on what the North Koreans claim are Megumi's remains prove inconclusive. So at the end of this very emotional roller coaster ride of a documentary we are still left with one part of the mystery the film began with: Is Megumi still alive?

"Abduction", to say the least, packs an incredibly powerful emotional punch that will have most viewers in tears several times during its 85 minutes as we learn during its roller coaster like ride that Megumi was not murdered, that Megumi was abducted by the North Koreans, that Megumi may be alive, that Megumi is dead, and that Megumi may be alive after all.

Poeuv's 2006 documentary "New Year Baby", which also packs an incrediable emotional punch, is part biography, part autobiography, and part tale of the Kampuchean Genocide. It tells the story of a family secret. On Christmas Day 2002 Poeuv's parents revealed to her and her brother that they were related but related in ways they were not aware of. The brother Poeuv thought she had, she was told, was really her half brother. The sisters Poeuv thought she had, she was told, were actually her cousins, the daughters of Poeuv's mother's sister. The family Poeuv thought was her family was actually, she was told, a family created by the Khmer Rouge during the Kampuchean Genocide of 1975 through 1979.

In order to find out more about her family secrets Poeuv convinces her mother, father, and half-brother Bros to return with her to their homeland. In Kampuchea Poeuv, after some resistance, uncovers the real story of her family. Her mother, "Ma", a Chinese Cambodian, had been married to a man before her father. She had had a son during her previous marriage, Bros, the brother she thought was her brother. Her brother's father, "Ma's" first husband, had been, it turns out, murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide. So too was the mother of her sisters Mala and Leakhena. He father,"Pa", a Cambodian Cambodian, and her mother were forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge in their attempt to integrate Cambodia's various ethnic and classes strands in order to end ethnic and class prejudice and strife in Kampuchea. It would be "Pa" who would find Male and Leakhena, who had been separated from "Ma" for months after months of searching Khmer Rouge camps. It would be "Pa" who would make four trips across the border between Cambodia and Thailand bringing "Ma", Bros, Male, Leakhena, and "Ma's" sewing machine to safety in a a refugee camp in Thailand close to the border with Kampuchea. There on the Cambodian New Year in April of 1980 Socheata Poeuv was born making her, in Cambodian tradition, the lucky one.

Interwoven into this emotional and moving tale are interviews with Poeuv's family. Mala, and Leakhena, who were ten and thirteen at the time of the genocide and vividly recount their memories of their experiences and fears of execution in the Khmer Rouge work and reeducation camps. "Ma" recounts her experiences in the Khmer Rouge camp and explains the tricks she used to survive, one of which was to tell stories she remembered from films to the Khmer Rouge leader in charge of her group. "Pa" recounts how he survived in the camps by following the middle way, talks about and shows Soceata the camp where Mala and Leahkena's mother is buried, recounts, as he and Socheata visit a Khmer Rouge commander of the camp he was in, what it was like in the camp, and, at the end of the film, shows Socheata the path the family took to safety in Thailand and the refugee camp where Socheata was born.

Flynn’s 2003 documentary "Discovering Dominga" is a film about discoveries. It is a documentary in which Denise Becker, a 29 year old from Iowa who was adopted when she was eleven by an Iowa minster and his family, discovers that her name is not really Denise but is instead Dominga Ruiz. It is a documentary about how Dominga discovers and uncovers, thanks to memories that come back to her and thanks to the research she undertakes as her memories come flowing back. It is a film about how Dominga remembers the family she once had, a family that had been massacred, along with most of the other residents of her village of Rio Negro in 1982 so the government could build a dam in the region. As Denise/Dominga begins to remember who she was, how she escaped from the soldiers who wanted to kill her—her mother told her to take her sister and run—how her sister died during her exodus to life, and how she came to America Dominga joins with other victims and survivors of the genocide to uncover her parents grave and to take legal action against the perpetrators of the genocide under General Rios-Montt that killed some 200,000 Guatemalans in the Guatemalan courts. "Discovering Dominga", as a result, is an incredibly moving and gut wrenching experience to watch as we, along with Dominga, uncover the mystery of who she is and how she came to be an adopted orphan in Iowa.

"Abduction", "New Year Baby", and "Discovering Dominga" are all emotional roller coaster rides. If they don't make you feel something about the human condition, if they don't make you cry while you watch them, well then, I don't know what can. I can't recommend them both enough. By the way, for you students of film, television, and documentaries out there in cyberspace, their is a lot of grist for the how films and television programmes manipulate viewers through subject matter and structure in all three of these superb documentaries. Enjoy.

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