'Don't Forget the Khmer'

"Iowa Shares" -- but so does PBS. Public Broadcasting Service is proving once again that it has a valid place in the American over-the-air television system by bringing to the attention of the country -- and the world -- documentaries about the attitudes and deeds of ordinary Americans which might otherwise never be seen or even heard about.

"Iowa Shares" has been the slogan of a mass-compassion grass-roots campaign to help a forgotten people -- the Khmer of Cambodia.For the past few years Iowa farmers, businessman, and medical professionals have been donating time and money. Now, through the auspices of Iowa Public Television, Iowa is also sharing its fabulous experiment in people-to-people philanthropy with all of America by way of a fascinating but sometimes numbing television documentary: "Don't Forget the Khmer" (PBS, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

It is a straightforward record of the work of various volunteer relief agencies trying to cope with the plight of Cambodian refugees on the Thai-Cambodia border, especially the Khmer people, who seem to be perplexedly caught in the web of local political intrigue. They are puzzled, sick, starving -- innocent pawns in a seemingly meaningless struggle whose sides don't even know what they stand for much of the time.

"Don't Forget the Khemer," produced by Marty Zell And Tom Moore, with cinematographer Neal Browm, has only one message: "Don't Forget the Khmer!" It simply documents the personal efforts of a variety of volunteers attempting to set up refugee camps for 160,000 Cambodians and teaching them to fend for themselves.

The documentary also tries to explain how it all came about -- perhaps a bit simplistically tracing the role of the United States in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia -- and the involvement of the Khemer Rouge, which, when it took power temporarily, considered eyeglasses a symbol of dangerous intellectual decadence.All wearers were made candidates for execution.

Perhaps the most moving portions of this extraordinary personal film are segments which deal with the intense personal relationships that developed naturally between the volunteers and the people they came to know, love, and help, people who seemed to remain patient and charming no matter how severe their ordeal. The moments of parting are shamelessly heartrending, but obviously sincere.

As they are forced to leave for their own homes in Iowa (although many arranged in the end to stay on), most of the volunteers pledge on camera to return to help further. They declare that they will never forget what they have seen, that they will always remember what people can do for one another. It is an object lesson in practical compassion.

One of the United Nations obserfvers looks right into the camera's lens at you, the viewer, and reminds you that never before has a whole nation been so obviously on the verge of total elimination. There is still much that must be done -- but the volunteers and the funds are running out. . . .

Even though this is a television show, the idea of a money-raising telethon would seem somehow indecently demeaning. But what are we going to do about it, the documentary asks?

What are we going to do about it?

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