The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
FINDING FACE. Finding Face, a documentary about Marina Tat — a beautiful karaoke star in Cambodia whose face was disfigured after being doused with nitric acid — and the issues surrounding acid attacks, a not-uncommon and gender-specific form of violence in Cambodia, screens at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium on Sunday, August 23. (Photo/Skye Fitzgerald, courtesy of SpinFilm)
From The Asian Reporter, V19, #32 (August 18, 2009), page 9.
Local filmmakers chronicle trend in Cambodian acid attacks
Directed by Patti Duncan and Skye Fitzgerald
Produced and distributed by SpinFilm
Showing Sunday, August 23 at the
Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium
By Allison Voigts
Beauty is a burden," states the mother of Marina Tat, tears streaming from her eyes as she sees images of her daughter’s acid-scarred face for the first time in 10 years.
In the late 1990s, music producers plucked 14-year-old Marina from her family’s home in a poor neighborhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia promising that her beauty would lead to stardom in karaoke videos. They were right; Marina’s videos turned heads. Unfortunately, one of the heads she turned belonged to Sitha Svay, the undersecretary of state and one of the most powerful men in Cambodia.
The much older Svay, who had a wife and children, was smitten. He began to follow Marina and shower her with expensive gifts. Once, he kidnapped her and held her hostage in a hotel room in another city, threatening her with a gun to never leave him. Marina, fearful for her family’s safety, relented and remained his mistress. That’s when the acid attack came.
An absorbing new documentary from local film company SpinFilm, Finding Face tells the stories of Marina and scores of other Cambodian victims of acid attacks.
While the number of acid attacks around the world has risen in the past decade, in Cambodia the absence of investigations, trials, or even acknowledgement of the attacks has led to a trend of violence, particularly against young women. The motives behind the attacks range from rejected marriage proposals to jealous lovers to domestic violence.
In Marina’s case, the assault came not from her violent lover, but from his wife and a gang of five angry family members. While Marina walked in the neighborhood market one day, Svay’s wife leapt from a car and dragged Marina by her hair into the street, where Svay’s nephew doused Marina’s face and chest with nitric acid.
"I thought at first that it was water, then I felt the burning," says Marina, who was 24 years old when the documentary was filmed. She currently lives in the United States.
None of the bystanders dared to intervene; everyone knew who Marina’s attacker was. After 10 years, there has been no investigation into the attack, and Svay remains a high-ranking official in the national government. Marina’s family went into hiding after they continued to receive threats. They eventually left Cambodia for asylum elsewhere.
Perhaps even more shocking, an estimated 25 to 60 acid attacks take place each year in Cambodia, but fewer than 15 people have been prosecuted for the crimes. The victims, who often go into hiding for the rest of their lives, receive little to no sympathy for their monstrous scars.
"They think we must have done something wrong," says Chour Sreya, a victim turned activist who now walks freely in public, despite the blatant stares and whispers the camera captures around her.
The criminals behind such attacks succeed not only in harming their victims physically, but in altering their very identities for the rest of their lives. A dozen surgeries later, Marina painstakingly applies her makeup in the bathroom mirror, but nothing can cover the deformities.
Her brother Sequndo, who narrates the film, has written letters repeatedly seeking justice from Cambodian authorities and human-rights organizations to no avail. The filmmakers, Patti Duncan and Skye Fitzgerald, along with the Cambodian-American Community of Oregon (which collaborated on the film), hope the documentary will be a step in the worldwide solution to the problem. Finding Face debuted at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland last spring. It opens in the United States August 23.
In Portland, the documentary screens Sunday, August 23 at 7:15pm at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, located at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. For more information, call (503) 221-1156 or visit <www.nwfilm.org>. To learn more, visit <www.spinfilm.org/face.htm>.