LI-DA KRUGER - BELONGING
Cambodian refugee, Li-Da Kruger (above), is the subject of a documentary, called Belonging, which she co-produced and which was screened on British television in 2003. It was the gripping story of her search to find her roots amongst the rubble of war-torn Cambodia.
BELONGING - a synopsis
It's April 1975 and the Khmer Rouge are marching on Phnom Penh. Just three days before the city falls, a small orphaned girl, Li-Da Men, is flown out of the country. Eventually, she ends up as the adopted daughter of the British cook and business woman, Prue Leith and her husband Rayne Kruger. Li-Da has a comfortable and privileged upbringing whilst the country of her birth is returned to Year Zero by the murderous Khmer Rouge, whose Killing Fields claim nearly two million Cambodians.
Now, twenty six years later, Li-Da returns to Cambodia in search of the truth: the truth about her past, the truth about her country's past and the truth about what is going on in that country today. This powerful film is the story of that search. A search which at every turn forces Li-Da to re-examine not just her past and opinions but also challenges the way in which the West regards Cambodia; a search which has the most astonishing and moving denouement. Within a week of Li-Da arriving in Cambodia, two families come forward believing they may be related to her. In the following weeks more people appear, often travelling long distances at their own expense: none searching for a rich Western relative, all searching for personal peace, having lost children and sisters during Cambodia's bloody war and its aftermath. Li-Da forms very strong bonds with some of these people - gradually realising that it is irrelevant whether they are blood relatives or not, as she is bound to them by the much stronger bond of history. For this is a country which has little evidence of its past, so detail becomes less important while truth and belonging is what and where you perceive it to be.
In what is almost a miraculous turn of events, Li-Da does discover something of the truth about what happened to her natural parents but this is not the most important discovery of her quest. As she is drawn more and more into the lives and homes of ordinary Cambodian people, she forms a deep attachment to them and for one in particular. By the end of the film Li-Da Kruger returns to Britain a transformed person - in love with a Cambodian, committed to return to Cambodia and not at the end of a process, but at the beginning.
This is a film with a gripping personal narrative, with tears and triumph, with some humour as well as disappointment. And in the most painful and poignant way shows life in Cambodia today: how a country wrestles with the concepts of justice and truth in relation to its past and yet in the end offers hope and optimism for the future.
First screened on British TV: ITV Sunday September 7th 2003 at 1.10pm.
Produced by The Cambodian Film Company in association with FulcrumTV
credits l exec prods: christopher hird & tracey gardiner l producers: tamara gordon paul oremland li-da kruger l filmed & directed by: tamara gordon l editor: emma black l music: ian hill l production team: martin long donna blackburn l 52 minutes l 2002
Photographs of Li-Da Kruger and friends, taken from the documentary film, Belonging.
The Sunday Times, 7 September 2003
From Pol Pot to Prue Leith - Li Da Kruger, was rescued from Phnom Penh three days before it fell, adopted and brought up in the Cotswolds. This is the story of her return.
"Can you hear me, Father Christmas I want a blonde wig!" shouted the little girl as she stuck her head up the chimney. It was weeks before my parents could separate me from the mass of synthetic yellow knots that covered my naturally jet black hair. Although I enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the English countryside, I was far from the blue- eyed, blonde-haired princess of my fantasies. I was Cambodian.
I grew up as the adopted daughter of the British restaurateur and business woman Prue Leith and her writer-husband Rayne Kruger. They already had a son, Daniel. It was a blissfully happy childhood in a beautiful house in Gloucestershire - a childhood full of tennis lessons and riding, of laughter and love. My mother was advised that I might be traumatised by the drama of my early months but this was never the case. As a toddler I would cower at loud noises, especially helicopters, but whatever the details of my undoubtedly tragic babyhood, I emerged unscathed.
My parents had always been open with me about my origins. I had grown up with the story that my birth mother had been killed by a rocket blast and my heroic father, a government soldier fleeing the communist guerrillas of Pot Pot's Khmer Rouge, left me at the international orphanage in the capital. He had been fatally wounded and never saw me again. I was flown out on the last American helicopter to leave Cambodia on 1975 at 11 months of age. This was the story my parents were told by the people who gave me to them, but in reality there was no proof. How much of my story was a myth?
The older I got, the more curious I became about my roots. I knew little about the country of my birth and couldn't get past the cinematic images of paddy fields and pointy Vietnamese hats. I had a yearning to return to Cambodia and discover my true story. It was not that I had been told lies, but there were no hard facts.
Having thought I had no real clues, it was only in my twenties when I was sorting through a file my father had forgotten about (my adoptive parents were totally supportive about the search), that I discovered a few strong leads. My Cambodian birth certificate and adoption contract revealed the names of my birth parents, the officials who released me and the area where I grew up.
So, clutching this evidence and a photo of myself as a baby, I embarked on what would be the biggest journey of my life: London to Phnom Penh. I was born in Cambodia in 1974, at the height of the terrible civil war. Government forces loyal to the king and supported by the Americans were losing to the Khmer Rouge. It was at this point, my father, so the story goes, had no choice but to abandon me. Meanwhile, foreigners were being evacuated. An American called Meyer Burstein, who had been working in Cambodia, wanted to adopt a baby for himself and his English wife. The baby was me.
In April 1975 America withdrew its troops and my exit papers were organised just in time to fly me out. Three days later the Khmer Rouge marched triumphantly into the capital. Starting from what they called year zero, they emptied the entire urban population into the countryside. Cambodia's killing fields had begun. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians are still missing today, their fate unknown, my birth parents among them.
The American took me back to England, but there was no happy ending yet. Within two weeks his wife had died. I was not legally adopted and as a single man Burstein was unable to adopt me. A Parisian friend offered to take me but this arrangment also was short-lived. There were personal complications and she, too, had to give me up. Burstein put his English house up for sale. Friends of my parents happened to be looking round it and he told them about me. My mother flew to Paris, fell in love with me immediately and tried to smuggle me into Britain. She was rumbled by immigration, but with help from the British consul was allowed to keep me and went through the adoption procedures. I was not yet two years old.
My mother's family, it seems, were enchanted at the little girl who wolfed down her spaghetti bolognese with chopsticks. She still laughs about the day I was introduced to her mother, who had been opposed to my adoption. Mum wanted me to look immaculate, so worked out exactly the time it would take to feed and bath me first. She had not accounted for my greed and I fell asleep, mouth stuffed full of sausage, clutching more in my hands. This is how my grandmother met me. Somehow that clinched it.
On my return to make a film of my search, like any visitor, I was seduced by Cambodia. Although I didn't feel Cambodian, it was an unexpected sensation to meld unnoticed into a crowd of black-haired, brown-skinned people for the first time. I felt ashamed, however, that I couldn't speak the Khmer language but, to my surprise and delight, all the Cambodians I met welcomed me "home".
I started my search by advertising in newspapers and on television with a picture of myself as a baby. Eight families came forward almost immediately. It quickly dawned on me that this was a country full of people looking for long-lost relatives. My story might be unusual in Britain, but not here. The difficulty for me, and all Cambodians searching, is that the Khmer Rouge were not only responsible for the deaths of nearly 2m people, but they also destroyed written records, wiping out the family histories of millions more.
To begin with, coming from such a cosy life in England, I was afraid to ask people about their experiences of war and loss. They accepted me immediately as one of them but it became easier only when I started to connect more with my dual identity. So when my search took me to places such as the notorious killing fields, I felt I had a right to be there and was not simply following the tourist trail of atrocities.
But while I truly enjoyed discovering my new-found culture, I was deeply affected by the daily revelations and sad truths. Despite an apparent democracy, political killings, corruption and a strong culture of impunity are still rife. A history of being terrorised means people are afraid to voice opinions. I was amazed that any kind of society was able to function here at all.
I had set out to discover whether my real parents were dead or alive and what it meant to me to have Cambodian blood flowing through my veins. I am no closer to the truth on the first part of my mission. So many people who had lost relatives responded to my adverts, desperate to believe that I was related to them. DNA tests were difficult to carry out and the ones we did got me no further. With no hard evidence, nothing was conclusive. Miraculously, I found the man who had signed my adoption papers. He claimed he knew my mother - she was beautiful, he said, and she was definitely dead. But he signed many similar papers and could he really remember me after such a long time? In the end, the story I have now is, more or less, the one I grew up with. Both parents are likely to be dead.
As for my second objective, my Englishness has been reinforced but that has not stopped me from wanting to keep up the connections with my birthplace. I have become a trustee of a British-based organisation called the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia, which sponsors economic and educational projects in Cambodian villages. All my spare time is taken up organising and fundraising for a benefit concert this December [involving world renowned cellist Rostropovich, which was later cancelled]. I haven't given up my dream of finding my Cambodian family. Maybe, just maybe, there is still an aunt or uncle left alive.
The Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia : Mission Statement: "The Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia respects and tries to promote the traditional culture on which village life is based, within the context of sustainable development for basic needs." http://www.nkfc.org
The Cotswold Journal, 2005
A COTSWOLD film-maker has documented her journey of discovery as she explored her origins amid one of the last century's most horrific episodes. Li-Da Kruger was one of a countless number of children separated from their families during the murderous years of Khmer Rouge dictatorship in Cambodia.
Despite such an eventful start to her life, Li-Da, now aged 30, remembers nothing before her childhood in Chastleton as the adoptive daughter of restaurateur Prue Leith and her late husband Rayne Kruger. She said it was the very happiness and stability of her upbringing that spurred her to investigate her personal history. "It was not just about finding my birth family but there was also the survivors' guilt of finding myself living where I am now when so many people were killed. I decided I should share my experience because I know there are so many other people who have been separated by war. I hoped the film would benefit those who wanted to do the same thing."
After a long struggle to secure funding for the documentary project, which had no guaranteed outcome, Li-Da headed out to the country of her birth. While in Cambodia she issued appeals in the press and other media and followed all the clues she could find in an effort to find her roots. The results of this search were captured in more than 300 hours of footage, which has now been released as a documentary feature entitled Belonging. Although the film was focused on Li-Da's personal story, her story illuminates the suffering of a whole nation through one of the darkest periods in recent history. "Everyone lost someone and it is not often talked about but when I asked people about it their stories it all came out. Even after 30 years the feelings are still very raw - every single person cried when they talked about their experiences."
Although Li-Da's investigations did not uncover any concrete facts about her background, she said the experience of making the film has had a positive impact on her life. "What made it for me was to be accepted by the people I met there as Cambodian, I had always feared that they would be hostile to me because I am a foreigner, or that I owed them something because I survived. Instead they said they were proud of me for coming back. But it also confirmed that I feel very English, I feel lucky because I am a bridge and can be accepted in both cultures."
Li-Da hopes to continue building links between East and West as a trustee of the Nginn Karet Foundation, which works to improve the economic self-sufficiency of poverty-stricken communities - details at www.nkfc.org. Li-Da said she would be happy to hear from any charities or groups who would like to use the film for fundraising purposes or to support the work of the Nginn Karet Foundation.
Li-Da Kruger took her film around the United Kingdom in September 2004 and screenings took place at the following venues: 1 Sept - The Cube Cinema, Bristol; 5 Sept - Chapter Cinema, Cardiff; 7 Sept - Showroom, Sheffield; 14 Sept - Birmingham MAC Art Centre; 18 Sept - Magic of Cambodia, Horton General Hospital, Banbury; 19 Sept - Broadway, Nottingham; 27 Sept - MacRoberts, Stirling; 28 Sept - Glasgow Film Theatre; 29 Sept - Bite the Mango Festival, Bradford; 30 Sept - Darlington Arts Centre, Darlington.
Li-Da took part in the 2004 Magic of Cambodia event as one of the guest speakers, where she introduced her documentary and then took part in a question and answer session immediately after the screening.
A further TV screening of Belonging took place on Sunday 6 March 2005 on the satellite television channel, History.
You can purchase the dvd for £14.99 inclusive of VAT and £1 postage and packaging. Please make your cheque payable to The Cambodian Film Company, and send it to 3rd Floor, Bramah House, 65-71 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF.
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