French-Cambodian filmmaker Guillaume Suon grew up haunted by the ghosts of his mother’s past.
It was her refusal to acknowledge them that led the 36-year-old to make the documentary The Taste of Secrets, which made its world premiere at this week’s 24th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
“I wanted to look at what war leaves behind,” said Suon of the film, which is in the running for BIFF’s main Wide Angle documentary prize.
“My mother never told me full stories, only pieces, and these haunted me, and my dreams.”
Suon’s film examines the notion of how survivors of genocide – and their families – deal with memories.
It contrasts the story of his mother Eng, who escaped the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in her homeland, with that of the French-Armenian photographer Antoine Agoudjian, who scours the Middle East as he documents mass killing while also tracing the memories of family members who survived the massacres of Armenians in Turkey in 1915.
One person wants to escape the ghosts of her past; the other is searching for ways to capture them through his images.
“At first I was shooting these stories in parallel, but then I realised this is the same film,” said Suon.
Eng had escaped to a Thai refugee camp by the end of the 1970s, but family members travelling with her were killed along the way.
They were among the up to two million estimated to have lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign, that lasted from 1975 to 1979.
“When you witness an execution you can never forget it, even if you don’t know the person,” she says at one point.
But Eng is keen only to discuss what she witnessed in Cambodia when she is among fellow survivors – and even then only fleetingly.
In some of the film’s more poignant scenes, we see Eng cooking at home in the south of France and reflecting, quietly, on how close she feels to her lost family when she uses recipes that have been passed down through the generations.
In the end she returns to Cambodia and, finally, talks more about her past.
“I think she found some relief,” said Suon. “My brother [Julien, the soundman on the film] and I found out more about who she is and who she was, and I think she started to feel that she was not alone with these memories anymore.”
Agoudjian, meanwhile, comes across as obsessed with the past and with coming to terms with the ghosts he says have followed his life.
Through numerous trips to the Middle East – including a harrowing one through Iraq with the filmmakers – he believes he has come closer to understanding the grief and guilt his family felt for being survivors of massacres estimated to have claimed up to 1.5 million lives.
“The places he goes are like a nightmare,” said Suom. “But this is his way, I think, of connecting with his family’s past and what they experienced.
“For my mother, there is a different feeling. She told me that if you go out and try to find death, you lose. Death will never leave you then.”
Suon has previously won acclaim for The Storm Makers, his look at the issue of human trafficking in Cambodia.
He previously worked under the mentorship of Oscar-nominated director Rithy Panh (The Missing Picture), also a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and the driving force behind the country’s Bophana film archive, while he champions the cause of young Cambodian filmmakers
Many of them have been exploring similar themes to those traced by Suon, including this year’s Oscar hope from Cambodia, director Caylee So’s In the Life of Music, which traces a romance that is haunted by the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
So – whose family fled the country when she was an infant – believes a current crop of emerging Cambodian filmmakers are collectively finding “new landscapes” when it comes to dealing with their homeland’s recent and tragic past.
“It such a big part of our lives and our history,” said So.
“We are finding that through film we can in some ways start to address some things that none of us can escape.”