With the Khmer Rouge trial in progress, a new documentary on Pol Pot's top aide sheds light on Cambodia's dark past
Published: 4/05/2011 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Life
To make a movie about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is to hear the cries from the graveyards. To revisit the Pol Pot era, even three decades later, is to walk among the ghosts. And to walk among the ghosts _ especially the Cambodian ghosts now that the word "Cambodia" rings with an awkward tinge to some Thais _ is to remember what makes us not Thai or Cambodian, but human all the same.
Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s number-two commander, opens up in new documentary, Enemies of the People.
To international viewers, the best-known film about Cambodia and the tragedy of the mid-1970s is The Killing Fields (shot partly in Bangkok itself). But the most chilling and historically valuable account on that subject is not the 1984 Western-produced drama: it is, in 2003, the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine by Rithy Panh, and now, in 2011, it is another doc Enemies of the People, in which the ghosts walk and talk perhaps in the hope of making themselves heard once again.
Directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, Enemies of the People scores an unusual feat and it's scheduled to open in a Bangkok multiplex, on one screen, on May 19. As the border throbs and uncertainty rules relations between Thailand and Cambodia, a re-examination of a bloodied chapter in Khmer history seems not an irrelevant matter; rather it is a lesson for both sides on how madness and violence, how knives and guns and arrogance, can easily spiral out of control and plunge everybody into hell.
"I do this not for journalism," says Thet Sambath, co-director and protagonist of the film, "I do this for history."
Among other things, Enemies of the People is a documentary about an unlikely friendship. In the film, we follow Thet Sambath, a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post, as he recounts the 10 years he's spent researching and getting acquainted with Nuon Chea, a top Khmer Rouge commander who's also known as "Brother Number Two" (in old news footage, Chea is the slightly chubby man who walks right behind Pol Pot everywhere he goes, including on a trip to China).
Now in his 80s, frail yet articulate, Chea is the last surviving Khmer Rouge leader who at this moment _ and this adds another urgency to the film _ awaits UN trial for crimes his regime committed 35 years ago.
Sambath's father, mother and older brother were killed during 1974 to 1977, and for years the young man was consumed by the need to understand why such atrocity, which left two million dead, was even possible (see box). ''I never really understood what happened under the Khmer Rouge. I read history books _ almost all by Westerners _ but it still didn't make sense to me: why were so many people killed?'' Sambath says in a note. ''It could not be just because the Khmer Rouge were 'bad people'.''
In early 2000s, Sambath got to know Nuon Chea, and the bulk of Enemies of the People shows Sambath's weekly trip to visit the old communist at his house _ like a son visiting his grandfather. The irony of life contributes to the accidental drama here: Sambath didn't tell Chea that his family were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and the two men seem to like each other's company enough that Chea allows the journalist to film him. Initially, Sambath didn't dare ask the questions he'd been meaning to ask, while Chea kept saying the usual lines, ''I was low ranking, I'm not a killer''. But slowly, the old Red grew to trust the young man and opens up, and everything is captured on his video camera.
Thet Sambath Rob Lemkin
''One day he said to me 'Sambath, I trust you, you are the person I would like to tell my story to. Ask me what you want to know','' Sambath recalls.
Nuon Chea, tired, regretful and defiant, is not the only subject in Enemies of the People. Throughout the years Sambath also befriended at least two other former Khmer Rouge soldiers, both of them now in their 60s and residing in a village not far from the mass graves where they once buried people. Looking tired and weathered, as if the weight of history has caught up with them, the two soldiers answer Sambath's questions, point him the site where they once killed people, and in one harrowing scene, demonstrate with a knife how they slit a man's throat. Not a single drop of blood is seen, but it's one of the scariest things you'll see on a screen in a long time.
''My sources are country people. The Khmer Rouge were all country people,'' Sambath wrote. ''They don't talk to people from the city, let alone foreigners. I am a country person. I think that's why, in the end, they talked to me. I am one of them.
''In 2005 I started to plan a book. But I worried no one would believe me. So I began tape-recording all my interviews. Then I worried they still might not believe. So, in 2006, I began videotaping my interviews and meetings.'' That same year, Sambath met Rob Lemkin, a documentary filmmaker who visited Phnom Penh, and Enemies of the People was the result of that meeting.
''I see Sambath as a man trying to make sense of the nightmare of his childhood,'' says Lemkin in his notes. ''I also see him as a representative of the Second Generation, working to ferret out the truth from the First Generation, in order to convey the meaning of history to the Third Generation. In this sense this story could be from Germany, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan.''
A former Khmer Rouge soldier talks about the crimes he’s been living with for three decades
A reconciliation, if not morally then socially at least, is possible only when the wrongdoers confront the wronged. The meeting between the victims of Khmer Rouge ultra-violence and the Khmer Rouge perpetrators was captured in the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, a 2003 film that would make a perfect double for Enemies of the People. Made by the Paris-based filmmaker Rithy Panh, who fled Cambodia to France in 1979, S21 revisits Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison in downtown Phnom Penh in which 17,000 people were ''processed'' and ''destroyed'' between 1975 to 1979, sometimes by guards as young as 12.
The movie brought these guards back to the prison, and they were asked to re-enact their routine of torture, abuse and murder _ to the empty cells and invisible prisoners _ but the cold shiver is intensified by the sense of history being relived, the sense of self-exorcism by these men who, either valid or not, also see themselves as helpless victims of a demon that terrorised the nation. In the film, two survivors of the prison meet their tormenters, because pain can probably be cured by confronting pain itself. Panh, perhaps the most well-known Cambodian filmmaker, has just completed a new doc focusing on Duch, the ruthless warden of Tuol Sleng who's also being tried before a UN tribunal.
While S21 has been screened at small conferences and academic seminars, Enemies of the People will open in a cinema at a time when Cambodia is grabbing the headlines of Thai newspapers, though in a different circumstance from the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath.
''First of all, Cambodia is our neighbour, and to learn the history of our neighbour is always important, because that's how we understand them,'' says Pimpaka Towira, whose company Extra Virgin has acquired the rights of the film. ''But also, I think Enemies of the People is a fair portrait; there are no clear bad guys in it. The story in the film can also serve as a lesson on how a conflict can escalate and how ideology can drive you to see whoever thinks differently as your enemies. It fits the situation in Thailand very well.''
Enemies of the People will open on May 19 at SF CentralWorld. The directors, Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, will answer audience questions at the 7pm screening.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR THET SAMBATH
What first drove you to take up this project? You explained in the film, but what really drove you on this mission to find the answer to the question that many people thought was impossible to answer?
After my family were killed, I grew up wondering why all this took place. But everywhere I looked I found accusation and rumour. I don't like rumour. So I resolved to get the story from the people who did it.
Do you think you have found the answer finally? The answer to why the killings took place? Is it very important to you to find out the answer?
Yes, it is important to find out. I think I have found out. But I think it will only come out in our sequel film Suspicious Minds [that he and Lemkin are making].
Your friendship with Nuon and the two killers from the village is the most striking thing. What did it feel like when you genuinely grew close to Chea?
I was surprised that I became close to him like that. But I am a very genuine and sincere person and so I think it was inevitable that so long as he told me the truth that we would become close.
In your view, why did Nuon, Soun and Koun (the two former killers in the village) decide to open up to you and let you film them extensively?
I think I have a way of making people talk to me. Even Nuon Chea and the killers often used to say, "Sambath, I don't know why I am telling you all this."
Has the film been shown in Cambodia? What was the reaction?
The film has been shown at one cinema in Phnom Penh many times. The government does not allow it a wide release. We hope they will change their minds soon. But it's still very controversial history. But for the audiences who have seen it, they have been amazed. They tell me they have been waiting for 30 years for this story to come out.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR ROB LEMKIN
When did you start collaborating with Sambath?
I first met Sambath in 2006 when I went to make my own film on the Khmer Rouge trial. The Khmer Rouge leader I really wanted to meet was Nuon Chea, but I was told the only person who could really talk to him was Sambath. So I hired Sambath as a fixer/translator but soon I realised the extraordinary relationship between them was the story and that Sambath was already well-advanced on the road of investigation and discovery. I asked him if we could join forces as equal partners. He said yes and we got started.
When you met him in person, what was your impression with Nuon Chea?
I think on one level our film is about the nature and process of research. To get important and secret information from someone who has been denying it for many years involves relating to them in a very human way. By the time the information has been obtained or released, the human aspect of the relationship has already developed irrevocably. There is an interesting tension and contradiction in this.
Why did Nuon Chea decide to open up to Sambath and let you and him film him extensively?
Nuon Chea did not open up in front of me _ this was for Sambath alone. But Nuon Chea was happy to answer our joint questions (put by Sambath when I wasn't there) because he trusted Sambath. I think he believes he has not been treated fairly by historians and journalists, and that he saw in Sambath someone who was prepared to allow him to put his point of view extensively. I think he realised this chance would not come again for him.
Will the film be used as any form of evidence in the upcoming trial?
There has been some controversy over our and the film's relationship with the trial chamber. We declined to give the film to the ECCC (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia) following requests from the prosecutors' office and the investigating judges. That was because the contributions were given on the basis that we were not officers or agents of the court. However, the court has plenty of opportunity to obtain the film from the public domain now and, according to their own court order of April 9, 2010, it seems they will do so and use it as they see fit in the trial of Nuon Chea and other members of the CPK central committee.
The most well-known film about the Cambodian tragedy was The Killing Fields, and the most well-known documentary on the subject is S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. To me, Enemies of the People allows the voices of the killers to be heard. How do you see the role of documentary filmmaking as a tool or journalistic/historical invention?
I think through the power of film storytelling you can connect people and politics, history and emotion that you cannot quite do in any other medium. That is because voiceless people can speak for themselves in a film and become central to the process in a way that is more direct than in a literary work. We are working on a second film Suspicious Minds, and a book, but we see the entirety of our work as part of a much bigger process of Cambodia starting to interrogate its own history. This way we hope the film may be part of a first step towards a genuine truth and reconciliation process.