Chilling doc is Cambodia’s Frost/Nixon and more

Enemies of the People

on July 30, 2010 by John P. McCarthy

A collaboration between British filmmaker Rob Lemkin and Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath, Enemies of the People can be described as Cambodia's version of Frost/Nixon. This analogy falsely assumes Nixon was responsible for the deaths of millions of Americans, while accurately casting Sambath, whose father and brother were among the Khmer Rouge's victims, in the David Frost role as confessor to the highest-ranking member of a notorious regime. Combining personal history and probing questions about justice on a national scale, the visceral film snagged awards at numerous festivals and represents a major contribution to the canon of human rights cinema. Academic markets will take note but most box office will likely come post-theatrical.

In essence, Enemies of the People (subtitle: A Personal Journey into the Heart of The Killing Fields) is a movie about a video project in which one man attempts to answer the question, "Why?" Lemkin documents how Sambath, a senior investigative reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, has spent ten years trying to fathom the gargantuan crime against humanity that took place between 1975 and 1979. Sambath's method has been to travel the country interviewing as many perpetrators and witnesses as possible, the majority of which have never spoken before about their role in the massacre of millions. Sambath has done this in his spare time, mostly on weekends, leaving his wife and children behind in the capital and venturing into the provinces armed with his video camera and an unobtrusive manner. A trunk filled with digital cassette tapes testifies to Sambath's tenacity, courage and craftiness.

The focus is on three of his interviewees: Khoun and Suon are farmers turned KR soldiers who dispatched thousands of peasants in their rural district. And most significantly, Sambath has spent years getting to know the white-haired Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two, Pol Pot's closest confidant and co-leader of the KR. As they point out mass graves, demonstrate precisely how they cut their victims' throats and explain that they were just following orders, Khoun and Suon appear genuinely remorseful and haunted. Khoun tells of smelling the blood on his hands while eating rice after one murderous episode, "It was worse than buffalo's flesh." Suon recollects how one woman pled for her life and how, when his hand began to hurt, he would start stabbing instead of slitting. We briefly hear from their immediate superior, Sister "Em," who says she regrets killing innocent victims but not those who were genuinely against the ruling party.

As for Nuon Chea, the question is whether he will break his thirty-year silence and admit to ordering the exterminations and maybe even offer some explanation. In this respect, the documentary's title is double-edged. At first it would seem to refer to the perpetrators, but it turns out to be a label used to describe those whom the KR considered traitorous. That included ethnic minorities, anyone who questioned the regime, plus those considered to be spies, in particular the hated Vietnamese. In 2006, during the filming of Enemies of the People, the United Nations together with the Cambodian government began setting up tribunals and Nuon Chea's arrest was imminent (he was arrested in 2007). A second source of dramatic tension in the movie is whether Sambeth, after spending so much time befriending Nuon Chea, will disclose his personal motivations. In addition to his father being brutally beaten and his brother's disappearance, his mother was forced to marry a KR militiaman and died in childbirth.

The multi-layered film contains Sambeth's English-language commentary, sequences in which he transcribes audiotapes and edits the visual fruits of his efforts, plus considerable archival footage, some of it featuring Nuon Chea (on a state visit to China, for instance) and some of it toward the end quite gruesome and graphic. Enemies of the People is really more about the process of recording historical testimony than about what is actually admitted, since no one says anything too revelatory. A meeting Sambeth arranges between Khoun, Soun and Nuon Chea is banal. The two uneducated farmers (who earlier described what it was like drinking the gall bladders of their victims) exhibit shame, yet the Nixonian former pol is unctuously condescending, carefully offering only theoretical platitudes and cagily refusing to take any personal responsibility.

As if the subject matter weren't disconcerting enough, Daniel Pemberton's music is positively eerie. Throughout, co-director Lemkin deploys numerous shots of gently percolating rice paddy water. On the surface, these arty close-ups serve as lyrical respites, offering texture and topographical orientation...until you realize that the water was the final resting place for countless victims and still contains human remains. Among the movie's most memorable scenes we see an older woman recalling the boiling sound that the swollen bodies made as they decomposed.

At movie's end, Sambeth vows to begin looking more toward the future than the past. He claims to have gained deep insight into the Killing Fields, although such understanding proves elusive for the viewer. One unassailable conclusion is that truth must come before reconciliation. As for justice, Brother Number Two's trial is slated to begin in 2011.

Distributor: International Film Circuit
Directors/Producers: Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath
Genre: Documentary; English and Khmer-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: July 30 NY


Tags: Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath

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