LONG BEACH - No one can quite tell a story like one who has experienced it. And no tale resonates quite like one told in its original language.
That's the message Cambodian director Chhay Bora has received as he has been touring with his film in the United States.
During question and answer sessions, one of the comments he hears from Khmer audience members is how the film "touched their hearts" in the way other more highly touted and well-funded films haven't.
On Monday at the Art Theatre, Chhay will screen his film, "Lost Loves," based on the true story of his mother-in-law, who lost most of her family during the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s.
The movie is the first feature film about the Khmer Rouge by an all-Cambodian cast crew in nearly 25 years and only the second film from the country to be submitted for the best foreign language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards.
"This is a groundbreaking film," said PraCh Ly, a Cambodian rapper and performer who helped bring the movie to Long Beach.
Frank discussions and depictions of the genocide are still "taboo in many ways" in Cambodia, said PraCh, who has had altercations with the ruling Cambodian government over his own anti-war messages.
Despite the ongoing war crimes tribunals in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the legacy of the Khmer Rouge - under whom upwards of 2 million died from executions, disease and starvation - remains murky and barely mentioned in education.
"To actually hear (a story) from the people who lived it gives a whole different understanding, or trying to understand," PraCh said.
Chhay has been touring the United States presenting the film on the university circuit, often showing it in small, cramped classrooms.
"I wanted a bigger presentation," PraCh said of bringing the movie to the Art Theatre, which will include a red carpet and VIP reception. "I wanted to do it right. This is a very important film."
"Lost Loves" has been described as a brutal yet honest work of self-examination. While cinematic tales from the Pol Pot era have been popular ground for foreign films, most notably "The Killing Fields," which garnered three Academy Awards in 1984, it is only recently that Cambodians have begun to tell their own stories on the big screen.
In August the Cambodian Oscar Selection Committee, which earned official academy recognition in 2011, made "Lost Loves" the country's first film submitted for recognition in 18 years.
For a country, and a ruling regime, that at times has been ambivalent about discussing its bloody history, the support for "Lost Loves" signals an important turning point in the country's dialogue, community members say.
"It was important to bring back the memory, to show what happened and to connect the old generation and the young generation to listen and learn," Bora, the director, said.
The movie opened to rave reviews at a four-day film festival in Phnom Penh in November 2010.
Bora said he has been told by Cambodians that his "modest little film" connects on a level that even "The Killing Fields" couldn't.
Bora and his wife, Kauv Sotheary, who stars in the film and co-wrote it, are both university professors who lived through the genocide as children.
The movie is based on the life of Leave Sila, Kauv's mother. It traces the family's journey from Phnom Penh to relocation at a forced labor camp and the ensuing horrors until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
Bora said he and his wife interviewed her mother at length, "but we didn't tell her we were making a movie." The mother, whose is ailing, has not seen the film.
Even a generation later, Bora said the pain was palpable.
"My wife wrote and cried in the middle of the night," Bora said. "We went back to (her) village, and all the way she was crying. But we finished the movie."
Bora said that if the youth of Cambodia and of the Cambodian-American diaspora can learn and connect with their past, he will have done his job.
He said the couple used their life-savings intended for their daughter's education to make the $150,000 film.
While Bora said he and his wife feel guilty about spending the money, he said his daughter supports the decision.
"I don't think I did right by my daughter," Bora said, "but I think I did right for my people and my history."
firstname.lastname@example.org, 562-714-2093, twitter:@gregmellen
Want to go?
What: "Lost Loves"
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1
Where: Art Theatre, 2025 E. Fourth St.
Admission: $10 advance, $15 door
Note: Proceeds benefit filmmaker Chhay Bora