It is April of 1975 and the Khmer Rouge has taken over Cambodia. The regime’s leader, Pol Pot, establishes the ideology and regime of Angka, which separates families into forced labor camps, where they are worked to death, face starvation or are tortured and executed.
In the midst of turbulent political winds, one doctor, along with his apprentice, keeps on helping the sick and poor in his village, healing them with tinctures and other homemade medicines despite the crippling poverty, starvation and danger they face.
But then he is faced with curing the wife of one of the government soldiers, who knows what camp the doctor’s family is imprisoned at — and who also killed the families of many people in the village. His apprentice doesn’t want to help the dying woman, seeing her as the enemy, but the doctor is desperate to survive and find out where the rest of his family is. As they argue, the wife overhears their conversation, eventually calling them traitors and leading to a calamitous chain of events.
Writer-director Robin Veret, along with producer Florence Chea, have painstakingly crafted a political drama that captures a horrific chapter of world history through the eyes of its victims. Like feature films “The Killing Fields” and “First They Killed My Father,” it offers a window into how the Khmer Rouge committed genocide against its own population, killing an estimated 1.6 to 1.8 million people in the four years it was in power.
With stunning photography and quiet, observant direction, the film is a deceptively simple story, based on the true account of a doctor, with details changed to protect anonymity. But though its narrative scope is confined to one turning point in one man’s life — and though it remains at an understated emotional register, refusing to fall into melodrama — the story resonates with the force of history and truth, becoming emblematic of how the Khmer Rouge devastated the country, both politically, economically and emotionally.
Much of the film’s power is drawn from its sense of authenticity, both in fact and feeling. Shot in the suburbs of Phnom Penh with a excellent cast of Cambodian actors, the film eschews a documentary-like immediacy. Its more meditative pacing and carefully composed images instead evoke both the weight of the past, as well as lead effectively into slow horror as the doctor — a compassionate healer by profession and temperament — faces his final, terrible choice.
“Sons of April” is a powerful political portrait in the form of a poetic, devastating short drama, which leverages the power of cinematic storytelling to create an almost unthinkable experience for the audience. So often when we read or learn about genocide — especially when the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 or 1979 came to light — and we often wonder how such horror and dehumanization could happen. The power of this short drama is to show that it happened one incident after another, which add up to a crushing tragedy — and growing piles of innocent bodies in mass graves.