Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey

(56 minutes)

Once a Child Soldier

(31 minutes)
Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey shows how one Khmer Rouge child soldier confronts his childhood experiences during Cambodia’s darkest hour, what he witnessed, and struggled with as he came of age.

Sayon Soeun was abducted at the age of six, exploited by the Khmer Rouge, his family life and education stolen. His recovery and redemption from unimaginable evil entails his transition from an orphanage in a refugee camp to adoption by a loving American family. After more than 35 years, he recently made contact with brothers and a sister he assumed were dead. The documentary follows his journey back to Cambodia to heal himself by finding the family that let him slip away and forgiving himself for his complicity as a Khmer Rouge child soldier.

Recognition for “Once a Child Soldier”

We are proud to announce that Once a Child Soldier is the winner of the Audience Choice Award at the Trenton Film Festival: Regional Documentaries 2024.


Audience Choice, Trenton Film Festival: Regional Documentaries 2024
Trenton, NJ


There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. This film shows how one of them came to grips with his childhood experiences, what he witnessed, and carried with him as he came of age. Lost Child ~ Sayon’s Journey tells the story of a former child-soldier under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.

Abducted at the age of six, he is now a community activist in Lowell, Massachusetts. Sayon Soeun appears to be living the Khmer-American dream alongside his wife, her extended family, and a thriving Khmer community. However, painful questions persist concerning the years he spent under the brutal authority of the Khmer Rouge.

After 35 years of absence, he recently made contact with four potential brothers and a sister he had assumed were dead. Sayon follows up when he returns to Cambodia where he searches for the truth about a family he barely remembers and comes to terms with his own experiences as a witness to genocidal crimes.

Production Credits
  • Janet Gardner — Producer/Director/Writer
  • Sopheap Theam — Co-Producer
  • Kevin Cloutier — Director of Photography/Field Producer
  • George Morren — Senior Producer
  • Mitsuko Brooks — Coordinating Producer
  • Cynthia Edwards — Associate Producer
  • Michael Grenadier, Thomas Dexter, Jessica Weiner — Editors
  • Doug Johnson — Sound Editor and Mixer


  • Dr. Alexander Hinton, Director, Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights, Rutgers University
  • Dr. David Chandler, Monash University
  • Dr. Sam-Ang Sam, Pannasastra University of Cambodia
  • Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim, Bryn Mawr College

This program was made possible by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in Lost Child: Sayon’s Journey do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

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A movie revival for capital city: Trenton Film Festival
The Trenton NJ Times, June 18, 2014

By Joyce J. Persico for the Trenton NJ Times

Even though the city hasn't had an operating movie theater since the Mayfair closed its doors nearly 40 years ago, the Trenton Film Festival is powering up for a return to downtown this weekend after a six-year hiatus.

Originally designed in 2004 as a yearly event to lure locals and visitors to the city with films that couldn't be seen outside the festival circuit, it was an ambitious and successful venture that last was held in 2008, just as it had achieved a footing in the downtown area.

Patrons walked from the N.J. State Museum on West State Street to Gallery 125 on South Warren Street and back to The Contemporary on West State Street as they roamed from one viewing venue to another. There was no violence. People wined and dined outside the State Museum and artistic expression was the glue that held it all together.

Tomorrow through Sunday, the Trenton Film Society will host a roster of 30 films at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., as it attempts to recapture a sense of vibrancy in the city through the medium that transports viewers to foreign places, intergalactic adventures and inside the hearts of people who have managed to endure despite their circumstances.

Two featured films in the festival speak to the resiliency of the human spirit, one dedicated to the rebuilding of Long Beach Island after Hurricane Sandy swept away so much of its history and future away. "Landfall: The Eyes of Sandy" will close the festival with its 6:15 p.m. showing on Sunday. Directed by A.D. Pearson, it concentrates on Stafford Township and Long Beach Island as residents struggle to rebuild their lives and their homes after the October 2012 storm.

All proceeds from the film will go to a nonprofit that has continued to provide aid for families, first responders and businesses in the area.

"Lost Child — Sayon's Journey" is a different type of film about survival. It will be shown on Sunday at 4 p.m. followed by a question-and-answer session with its director-producer, Rocky Hill resident Janet Gardner, who traveled to Cambodia to research and film it.

A bittersweet documentary running 57 minutes, "Lost Child" details the story of Sayon Soeun, a child who was taken from his family at age 6 by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and forced to become a child soldier during the ruling Communist Party's four-year reign in the late 1970s.

His solitary journey eventually took him to Lowell, Mass., where, speaking no English and still in shock over what he had seen in war, he was adopted by an American family. Even in a town whose population was 25 to 35 percent Cambodian, Sayon's loneliness was nearly tangible and the person he most identified with was his 2-year-old American sister, who knew as little language as he did.

The film documents his journey back to Cambodia as he searches for the brothers, sisters and parents he left behind.

An award-winning film-maker who liked the idea of showing her film at the Mill Hill Playhouse after attending a Trenton Film Society screening of Oscar-nominated shorts there and then dining out locally, Gardner is an example of the type of talent this year's event will feature.

Gardner first ventured into filming the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide in "Dancing Through Death," an award-winning documentary on the classical dancers who survived the Khmer Rouge. Broadcast on PBS in 2007, it echoes Sayon's own efforts to preserve his culture in the young Cambodians who come to his classes in Lowell, where he still resides.

Gardner's pre-filmmaking career included a long list of journalism jobs at newspapers, including the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Cleveland Plain dealer and the Boston Globe.

She founded The Gardner Documentary Group to produce educational documentaries in 1990.

Her research took her to tours of Cambodia and Vietnam. It was on one of her trips that she met a translator whom Sayon married. Eventually she became an assistant producer on the film, Gardner said.

"Sayon was very quiet when he first came to the United States. He had PTSD and didn't talk very much," Gardner said. "As you can see from the film, the families he visited had conflicting stories to tell, so he asked for a DNA test to be sure he found his family. He was only a child when he was taken from his family, so he couldn't remember much."

Hoping to show her film on PBS stations in 2015, Gardner sees "Lost Child" as a way for festival audiences to "understand how children are still being robbed of their childhoods in places like Africa and Burma" and hopes that "they will become angry enough to do something about it."

A pair of films about Trenton will help fill out the film festival lineup.

The documentary "This Trenton Life" follows a Passage Theatre production by Trenton area youth and "The Trenaissance: A Better Way for the Capital" is a documentary short that highlights positive changes within the city.

For tickets and a complete list of films at the festival, visit trentonfilmsociety.org

+ Read full review

Film Review – ‘Lost Child – Sayon’s Journey’
The Daily Princetonian, May 6, 2013


  • CINE Golden Eagle Award Winner 2013
  • Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival 2013—Audience Choice Award
  • Trenton Film Festival 2014—Audience Choice Award
  • New Jersey Film Festival 2013—Honorable Mention
  • Athens International Film and Video Festival 2014—Honorable Mention
  • Boston Asian American Film Festival 2013

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