Celebrating ‘Pol Pot’s Birthday’

The Goodwill store outlets are a treasure trove for the adventurous DVD hunter.

After extended practice I can breeze through the stacks of offerings like I was Summa Cum Laude at the Evelyn Woods Speed Reading University.

My practiced eyes are trained to waft over the glut of Jack Black films and the piles of Sex in the City DVDs (pick a season any season) as I search for that rare or titillating title which is the holy grail of my pursuit.

Most days I leave empty handed but then on others – eureka!

And one such eureka find was….

Wait for it!

Pol Pot’s Birthday.

Now just to include that title in my collection had an appeal that was worth shelling out a buck ninety-nine regardless of the merit of what that thin plastic cartridge held.

But double eureka!

It was a find!

For the history impaired a brief rundown:

Pol Pot was a Cambodian revolutionary and one of the 20th century’s most proficient mass murderers.

His movement was known as the Khmer Rouge, based on a Marxist inspired philosophy with a pronounced Maoist bent. Pol Pot suffered from the affliction common to his type, wherein through the prism of the sickness of his own soul he viewed all humanity as flawed.

The destabilization and collapse of the old Cambodian social order and the monarchy of Prince Sihanouk, was a tragic consequence of the United States war in Viet Nam, and President Richard Nixon’s obsession with ending it by any means.

With the intention of eliminating the routes employed by the Việt Cộng on the Cambodian side of the border, in order to move reinforcements and supplies to their forces in the south, Nixon secretly dispatched American troops to that country and ordered an air campaign that, in just a week, managed to drop on Cambodia a bomb tonnage in excess of that used against Japan during all of World War II.

Sihanouk’s army engaged Pol Pot’s forces in a brutal civil war, but finally the old regime collapsed and the Khmer Rogue occupied the capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975.

From 1976 to 1979, Pol Pot was the prime minister, renaming the country Democratic Kampuchea, designating the beginning of his rule as “Year One.”

With his army behind him, he established himself in a totalitarian dictatorship and put into play his plans of social engineering with the aim of completely remaking the nation into a classless peasant society.

Professionals, intellectuals, those who spoke a foreign language, musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed.
Cities were emptied as urban dwellers were sent to work on collective farms and in forced labor projects.

From widespread famine, disease, overwork, and constant executions nearly three million Cambodians perished, a quarter of the country’s population.

Pol Pot was driven from power in 1979 as a result of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and for nearly a decade he retreated deeper into the jungle with the remnant of his army and supporters.

In 1998 Pol Pot died. Some say murdered by his own people.

Well, hardly the stuff of comedy, but Talmage Cooley apparently likes a challenge.

With a BA in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia, for Cooley to serve up the darkly satirical Pol Pot’s Birthday(2004) as his debut short feature does have logic about it.

Working from a script co-written with Anthony Sperduti, Cooley has delivered a compact gem that functions on two very distinct levels, and an excellent example of this is found at the start of the film.

You are presented with a clump of minions (Peter Leung, Ken Sih, James Kyson, Jerry Livan) scattered about a cramped, dilapidated bunker. In the depressingly bare confines, you see their futile attempts at concealing themselves but you’re unsure if they’re hiding from fear or laying in ambush.

When with the arrival of the grim faced Pol Pot (Keone Young), they rise up with a halfhearted wail of “surprise” and you find your laughter is heavily sprinkled with the spice of wishful thinking.

Pol Pot was smart enough to die before being brought to face execution for his crimes against humanity, so in watching this constipated contrived celebration unfold, there is a slight sense of contentment that runs like an undercurrent beneath the laughter. As when an apprehensive lackey nervously takes the first taste of the cook’s (Domnang Pin) modest birthday cake just in case the icing is arsenic flavored, one feels a tad of satisfaction in contemplating that perhaps Pol Pot’s final days were spent in the shadows of a crippling paranoia and having to endure at the close of his life the stark facts of his utter failure gnawing him like vultures pecking his liver out.

If nothing else, we can take some comfort in knowing that reality has a way of leaving banana peels in the path of all megalomaniacs endowed with a messy messianic complex, guaranteeing in their futures a painful 360 pratfall onto their asses. (♦ See Author’s Note)

Cooley’s savage skewing of the marginalized dictator allows us to conclude a wrenching chapter in our recent history with at least the illusion of justice.

And on top of that we’re treated to some solidly good snickers, especially from Young whose stone faced performance would win the applause of Keaton.

Cooley followed Pol Pot’s Birthday, which also features the talents of Murphy Tan and Lee Wong, with Dimmer in 2005, a documentary short about a gang of blind teenage boys in that urban wasteland known as Buffalo, New York.

In 2009 Cooley came out with his first feature Taking Chances (aka Patriotville) a comedy co-written with Annie Nocentiand featuring Justin Long and Rob Corddry which nevertheless met a tepid reception from audiences and critics alike.

But Pol Pot’s Birthday shows great promise, so let’s keep the jury out on this filmmaker for a while more.

Now I always hate recommending a work that I have no hint as to how anyone could possibly come by a copy or let alone see. (Other than showing up at my place with a large pizza and a six pack of Sam Adams).

Fortunately, this time you can go to YouTube and find Pol Pot’s Birthday in its entirety on YouTube.

And trust me, this psychopathic mass murderer and his genocidal slaughter of a whole nation is good for a few snickers. (♣ See Author’s Note)


♦ Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity just stay in line, your turn will come.

♣ For those wishing to have a fuller understanding of what Cambodia suffered I recommend two films – The Killing Fields (Best Picture 1984) and Swimming to Cambodia (1987), the film version of the late Spaulding Grey’s iconic one man show about working as an actor on The Killing Fields and the human cost of America’s toxic involvement in Southeast Asia.

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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