War was made real to me at the age of ten when I stared up at a wedding photo that hung in the hallway of my Grandparents' apartment and asked, "Who are these people, Grandma? Where are they?"
"That's my family, from Russia," she said. She pointed out where she sat, cross-legged on the grass next to her sister; they wore matching dresses and identical braids.
"Me, my sister, and my mother, we are the only ones who survived the Holocaust," she said. "We were here in America. Everyone else you see — they were killed." I counted 46 people in the picture, many of them children, and then I cried.
In the future, when I broached the topic with my grandmother, she told me, simply, "I don't like to talk about those things — the past is the past."
As I grew older, I realized that those experiences that are most painful, shameful, and confusing to us are usually the most difficult to talk about. Most people keep their pain inside, tucked away in a crevasse of the heart.
In school I learned about World War II and the Jewish Holocaust primarily through history books, and there was always an unemotional distance with the numbers, the names, the places — the "facts." I truly don't know if I would have cared about that piece of history if I had not known that so much of my own family had died during that time — if that picture had not hung in my Grandparents' hallway.
Similarly, I had little curiosity about the Vietnam War, the American "side-show" in Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge genocide, because I didn't feel a relationship to the information. All of that changed when I was in high school and a new student named Arn Chorn-Pond spoke to the school about his personal experiences during the genocide in Cambodia.
When I heard what Arn Chorn-Pond said, I was truly shocked and amazed by him. Here was a young guy who had experienced the very worst of human tragedy — the loss of his family, his culture, his home, and his innocence — and he wanted to talk about it. I knew I could learn a lot from him.
In the past 17 years since I first met Arn, and through the process of making The Flute Player, I have learned so much about Cambodia — the glory of its past and the unfathomable brutality of its recent history. I have come to see the long term and very human ramifications of war. And I have seen how expression — though music, art, words — has a transcendent power for healing.
What societal circumstances create environments of hate? What would I have done if I were Arn? How can someone wake up in the morning after experiencing such tragedy, let alone translate their pain into community building and activism? I am so pleased that Arn allowed me to tell his story so that I could grapple with these important questions. And I am grateful that Arn has the courage to share both his pain and his hope.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions to the film.