#399) Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1989)


#399) Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1989)

Directed & Written by Ellen Bruno

Class of 2012

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way shape or form an expert on Cambodia, its people, or its complex history, especially the era covered in this movie. I highly recommend researching the Khmer Rouge reign of Cambodia before watching “Samsara”.

In 1975, Cambodia’s communist party the Khmer Rouge (led by Pol Pot) overthrew the government and took command. Pol Pot ordered any who opposed him to be executed, resulting in the Cambodian genocide with a death toll anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people. In 1979, Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia and ended the Khmer Rouge’s reign. “Samsara” documents the struggles of Cambodian citizens in the immediate aftermath of these events. The Cambodians in the film are shown trying to return to normalcy while wrestling with the massive loss they have experienced, as well as being caught between the new self-appointed Vietnamese rulers and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Coming from the Sanskrit for “world”, Samsara refers to the inevitable rebirth that comes from death, and this film emphasizes that Cambodia will be reborn following these traumatic times.

Like many of the documentaries on this list, “Samsara” does not interfere with its subjects, allowing them to tell their own story. Those interviewed discuss their deep state of mourning, their survivor’s guilt, but ultimately their hope for the future of Cambodia. The film opened my eyes to a culture and history I only knew in passing, and gave me a better understanding on a deeper, more emotional level. In less than 30 minutes “Samsara” helps you begin to comprehend the atrocities Cambodia has faced, and still manages to resonate after 30 years and a completely overhauled Cambodia. No argument here for NFR inclusion.

Why It Matters: The NFR describes the film as “poetic, heartbreaking and evocative”. They also crib some of their text from the “Samsara” write-up found on Ellen Bruno’s official website.

Everybody Gets One: Not a lot of info out there about Ellen Bruno, other than she started out as an international relief worker in many of the countries she would later document in her films. Frustrated with direct service work, she got an MA in film at Stanford. “Samsara” was Ellen’s master thesis project.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Samsara” won in the Documentary category at the Student Academy Awards, but didn’t make it to the big room. Coincidentally, one of the other Student Academy Award winners that night was fellow future NFR entry “The Lunch Date”. For the record: the Documentary Short winner at that year’s Oscars was “Days of Waiting”, Estelle Ishigo’s account of her time in a Japanese internment camp.


  • Ellen Bruno continues to make films, most of which are about oppressed people in such Asian countries as Tibet and Burma. Her most recent film, 2013’s “Split”, tackles divorce from a child’s perspective.
  • Shortly after the release of this film, the United Nations started overseeing peace talks, and in 1991, the Vietnamese withdrew their troops from Cambodia. The Cambodian People’s Party replaced its Communist ideologies with a combination of a monarchy and free market economy, which are still in effect to this day.

Further Activism: The Bruno Films’ website includes a page on how to take action and raise funds for the social issues chronicled in Ellen’s movies. Check it out here.

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