January 19, 2011
By Naomi Pfefferman
Nuon Chea, above, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, confesses his involvement in the 1970s Cambodian genocide in the documentary film “Enemies of the People,” directed and produced by Rob Lemkin.
Filmmaker Rob Lemkin’s most famous relative is the late Raphael Lemkin, a Polish attorney who spent his life crusading against mass murder and who invented the term “genocide” to describe what the Nazis had done to the Jews, including 40 members of his family.
Rob Lemkin never knew Raphael Lemkin, a distant cousin. But the elder Lemkin’s legacy has proved a motivation for the filmmaker’s work, notably his documentary “Enemies of the People,” an exposé on the Cambodian genocide that claimed 2 million lives during the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. Co-authored with Thet Sambath, the groundbreaking film — which culminates with a confession by Pol Pot’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea — is short-listed for the Academy Award and has received a Writers Guild Award nomination.
“We went from village to village looking for individuals,” Lemkin said of his search with Sambath for lower-level peasant executioners. “I felt I was with people who had repeatedly looked into the faces of people they were killing. It was utterly chilling, but also inspiring that they were willing to be so open about their deeds.”
The movie is also the personal story of Sambath, whose father was stabbed to death in the Killing Fields and whose mother died in childbirth after being forced to marry a Khmer Rouge leader. An orphan by 9, Sambath became a journalist specifically so he could seek out and query the kinds of people who had destroyed his family. His most fervent mission was to gain the confidence of Nuon Chea by repeatedly visiting the octogenarian in order to elicit a confession. Sambath was so obsessive about his work that his newspaper career languished, and his wife and children were sometimes left without money for food.
Lemkin’s dedication to the project was also obsessive, stemming from his own family’s experience, he said during an interview in Los Angeles. The conversation turned back to Raphael Lemkin, who put everything else in his life on hold in order to convince the United Nations to declare genocide an international crime. The work took years and proved exhausting: Just three days after the U.N. finally voted to adopt the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Raphael Lemkin became gravely ill and collapsed. When hospital doctors queried him about his malady, he said his condition was “genocide-itis.” When he died in poverty in the late 1950s, only seven people attended his funeral.