Michele Williams stars in “Certain Women”

Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia, produced by Robert K. Lieberman, playing 11/4 & 11/5 at Cinemapolis; Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt, opening 11/11 at Cinemapolis.

Local documentarian Robert K. Lieberman takes on the state of Cambodia and all the paradoxes of its people. As Lieberman’s film Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia digs into the complexities of the Cambodian people and history, it attempts to reconcile the friendly nature of the Cambodians and the viciousness of the Khmer Rouge. As with its people, the film contrasts the natural beauty of the country with the ugliness of its politics.

In just under 90 minutes, Lieberman’s film covers a great deal of complex history and background on Cambodia, taking in the Vietnam War, Kent State and Nixon and Kissinger. (With the election so near, it’s brave of the film to include Bernie Sanders in debate calling Kissinger on the carpet for war crimes.)

The film confronts the anger that drives the new generation, as well as the lack of information and education about the past. A child being interviewed knows his own history and ends up breaking down in tears. His mother worries about passing all this ugliness on to her kids.

Lieberman and his crew interview several fascinating people, including Vong Sokheng, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier; Chhun Chenda Sophea, founder of Impact Cambodia; and Hannah Phan, senior lecturer, Khmer Studies at Cornell, who still has a hard time talking about her childhood. “I did not want to talk about it,” she says, “because it brought back all the memories of that time.”

Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia shows at Cinemapolis Friday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 5. at 2 p.m., with Lieberman, producer Deborah Hoard and story editor David Kossack.

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, based on short stories by Maile Meloy, is like a Montana-based version of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts: Reichardt directs, edits and adapts Meloy’s fiction, setting up a trio of tales revolving around three disparate ladies in various stages of their lives: a lawyer (Laura Dern) struggling with a client (Jared Harris) who got railroaded in a workers’ disability case; a wife and mother (Michele Williams) building a new house and looking to buy a pile of sandstone bricks from an old man (Rene Auberjonois); and a ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who stumbles into a student law class being taught by a commuting lawyer (Kristen Stewart).

Some of the stories connect, usually by one character. James LeGros is seen in one context in Laura Dern’s story, and when Reichardt cuts to the Williams storyline, we see LeGros in a different context and different connection to the characters in that scenario.

A few storylines don’t seem to connect at all, which doesn’t hurt the structure of the film. Rather, it emphasizes a certain random bleak quality that permeates the whole film. Reichardt, like Alexander Payne, seems to have staked out a rugged, Midwestern area to shoot in, contrasting the foreboding natural world with the trains, strip malls and malls plopped down in the mountains and streams of Billings and other Montana cities.

She doesn’t favor the florid operatics of melodrama, preferring to keep her certain women small in the frame against the natural world. She does favor odd juxtapositions that the audience is left to ponder, as when Dern eats lunch in a mall food court as a Sioux Indian dance recital is happening in front of her. Reichardt puts real life in front of Meloy’s characters and watches them deal with it. • 

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