Enemies of the People sets stage for Khmer Rouge killing fields trials

Indefatigable Cambodian journalist carries camera for 10 years until murderers finally come clean

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      A documentary by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin. Unrated. Plays Saturday to Monday, January 15 to 17, and Thursday, January 20, at the Vancity Theatre

      The recent decision (on January 13) by a special UN–backed Cambodian court to dismiss appeals by four accused Khmer Rouge war criminals and proceed to trial affixes a stamp of finality to Enemies of the People.

      The absorbing and historic 2009 documentary by Phnom Penh journalist Thet Sambath, years in the making, ends with the imminent detention in 2007 of the Communist Khmer Rouge’s former number-two man, Nuon Chea, prior to indictment on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Chea helped rule Cambodia, then called Democratic Kampuchea, as chief ideologist with the infamous Pol Pot from 1976 to 1979, when the government crumbled with the country’s invasion by Vietnam. Prior to that, the Khmer Rouge movement executed or killed through starvation or disease as many as 2.5 million people, mostly ethnic minorities, monks, intellectuals, and those tainted by any contact with outside, capitalist governments or “influences”.

      Sambath’s father was killed after a village meeting where he questioned the abolition of private property, and his brother and mother also died during the purges. Thet became determined to document for posterity the reasons for the genocide and who was responsible for this monstrous chapter of Cambodia’s history.

      “Nobody understands why so many people were killed,” Sambath says in a voice-over at the film’s start.

      About two decades after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, Sambath, then a senior reporter for the Phnom Penh Post, started to track down the largely anonymous farmers and uneducated peasants who were responsible for most of the killings, especially in the country’s northeast. Chea was relatively easy to track down as he had returned from exile in 1998 as part of a surrender deal that included no prosecution, and he was living near the Thailand border.

      Without mentioning his family’s fate, the journalist won the confidence of former murderers on farms and in small villages during dozens of visits. These social connections and, eventually, filmed interviews took place over an astonishing period of time—seven years in several cases, and almost 10 years with Chea—before he was able to comfortably ask questions about the killings.

      With codirector and writer Rob Lemkin shouldering a second camera during his epic quest’s later years, Sambath wrested some astonishing, and chilling, revelations from his subjects. One executioner’s casual re-creation of his preferred method of killing and his complaint of sore wrists after so much throat-slitting brings to mind writer Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about the “banality of evil”. There is horrific, almost offhand talk of the slaughter of children first so they wouldn’t scream as they saw their parents killed, and one woman speaks of putrefying bodies "boiling" in the tropical rainfalls. There is even anecdotal evidence of superstitious cannibalism.

      Through it all, blame is shifted from the peasant ranks to the local cadre to regional bosses, and so on up the chain. Chea’s final admissions are damning and his apologies defiant. He says the killers should be “proud”: “If we had shown mercy to these people, the country would have been lost.”

      Sambath and Lemkin eschew much of the baggage normally associated with documentaries focused on a single personality. If there was an abundance of footage recording beautiful landscapes and the reporter's family life, research, and extensive travels, it was mostly discarded in favour of the teased-out interviews and stark shots of locations unexceptional save for the carnage they witnessed.

      Ultimately, Sambath’s interviews—although unravelling only a tiny portion of the quilt of unacknowledged guilt that lies heavy over that period of his country’s history—demonstrate a startling similarity between that genocide and the much swifter atrocities in Rwanda less than 20 years down the road. Common people, mostly uneducated, rural villagers, also committed most of those murders as a result of sustained indoctrination, peer pressure, drunkenness, and fear of retribution. Another kindred element? A lack of any feeling of real responsibility. Later interviews with Rwandan thugs and survivors by authors such as Philip Gourevitch and Jean Hatzfeld reveal behaviour and feelings shared by those used as murder weapons by the Khmer Rouge.

      One can only hope that Sambath and Lemkin’s effort assists in laying the groundwork to help the world identify such genocides-in-the-making while they are still in their infancy.

      Enemies of the People Movie Trailer from Rob Lemkin on Vimeo.