The Poorest Man is an 80-minute, English language feature film, to be produced in Cambodia. The film is based on the true story of Van Chhuon, a former Khmer Rouge village chief credited with saving the lives of over 100 families during the worst years of the Pol Pot regime.
The film is also a love story, set against the US aerial bombings during the Lon Nol era in 1970, and then explores the Khmer Rouge revolution from the perspective of the Cambodian villager. Visually rich with natural settings, village culture, and history, the story follows Van Chhuon and his wife, Yim Hoy, through the devastation and heartbreak of the Cambodian revolution, to the relative stability in Kuok Snuol village after the Khmer Rouge victory on 17 April 1975.
In 1977, the story then takes a dramatic turn when the Pol Pot regime implodes, and troops from the Southwest arrive to purge the existing Khmer Rouge leadership. The new, more fanatical KR leadership, assembled the villagers and asked, “who is the poorest man here?” The villagers pointed to Van Chhuon, who was then nominated village chief. Our protagonist suddenly goes from being an ordinary villager, to having the power over life and death. But Van Chhuon is no ordinary villager.
Van Chhuon knows that if he gives somebody up, they will be tortured, and they will then give somebody else up, before being executed. Instead, he vows to not give up anybody. While keeping up a stern appearance, Van Chhuon teaches people to hide food, and tells the KR soldiers that people on their arrest list have already been taken, or do not live there. He also gets another villager, Nai Kong, out of the Khmer Rouge prison, and then saves his life again later on. Both Van Chhuon and Yim Hoy know that they will both be executed immediately if the Khmer Rouge found out, but decide that saving lives is more important than taking them.
When the Vietnamese invade Cambodia in January 1979, Van Chhuon refuses all government job offers, claiming he will never work for any government ever again. When asked why he saved all his villagers, he replies “because it was the right thing to do.” The story ends in 1992 amid the arrival of the UN. Van Chhuon is working on his house and casually asks a passing villager for a bit of help. Two days later, the entire village, and all remaining survivors of Kuok Snuol, show up in a massive demonstration of love and respect.
A cross between Schindler’s List and The Killing Fields, The Poorest Man is a both a tribute to Van Chhuon and Yim Hoy, and to those in the Khmer Rouge regime who refused to kill. The Poorest Man is a light shining through the darkness, and a true celebration of the human spirit.