In Enemies of the People the men and women who perpetrated the massacres that were the Killing Fields of Cambodia – from the foot-soldiers who slit throats to the party’s ideological leader, Nuon Chea aka Brother Number Two – break a 30-year silence to give testimony never before heard or seen. Unprecedented access from top to bottom of the Khmer Rouge has been achieved through a decade of work by one of Cambodia’s top investigative journalists, Thet Sambath. After years of visits and trust-building, Sambath finally persuades Brother Number Two to admit (for the first time) in detail how he and Pol Pot (the two supreme powers in the Khmer Rouge state) set out to kill party members whom they considered ‘Enemies of the People’. But Sambath’s remarkable work goes one stage further: over the years, he befriends a network of killers in the provinces who implemented the kill policy. Sambath’s work is a watershed both in Cambodian historiography and in the country’s quest for closure on one of the world’s darkest episodes.
“Some say almost 2 million people died in the Killing Fields. Nobody understands why so many people were killed at that time”. These are the opening words of Thet Sambath in his remarkable film, Enemies of the People. Sambath is a senior reporter on the Phnom Penh Post, husband and father of two, and a member of a family wiped out by Khmer Rouge. He is also a man on a mission to understand ‘why’ so many were killed during the years 1975 to 1979. He is a catalyst who unlocks the memories and confessions of the people who ordered the killings, as well as those who carried out the orders. “The truth will only ever be told by those that actually killed,” Sambath says. “No journalist or foreigner can ask these country people to talk about what they did, but I can”. When he does, they answer.
Sambath’s project started ten years ago, when he first began using his weekends to travel to the rural areas to visit Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two”, Pol Pot’s right hand man. Rob Lemkin, a British filmmaker, joined the project three years ago. Together they have made a film that is not only winning awards on the festival circuits, but is also having wider ripples in the Cambodian community. DOX met Rob in Oslo (Human Rights Human Wrongs Film Festival), Prague (One World) and Toronto (Hot Docs) and has since been following the effects of the film on audiences and lawyers.
Enemies of the People is one of four European documentaries to be released soon after the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were arrested on behalf of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). This is a joint UN and Cambodian tribunal that has taken millions of dollars to establish. Its purpose is to put the leaders of one of the largest genocides of the 20th century on trial. Its very existence surprises many people, including Thet Sambath, but it still remains to be seen what it can achieve. Five of the top Khmer Rouge leaders were arrested at the end of 2007, but so far only Duch (the leader of the notorious S21 torture centre) has been put on trial. His judgment awaits. Of the others, Nuon Chea is yet to speak. Khieu Samphan, the Head of State at the time of the killings, is, through his lawyer Jacques Verges (also Milosevic’s defence lawyer), appealing, and thus delaying the start of his trial. So the process is being dragged out for these old and ailing men, and one wonders if any closure or justice will eve be found through this system. If not, the fact the court exists may still be important, but it will not add to our understanding of why these atrocities occur. Such deeper comprehension is, or course, not the aim of a legal process built on Western ideals (albeit in partnership with the Cambodians).
Documentary films such as Enemies of the People are trying to decipher why mass killings occur. The filmmakers were explicit in assuring those they interviewed that they were not filming for the courts, but for history. This does not, however, make the footage immune to the interests of those searching for material that may admissible as evidence in court. Rob Lemkin tells DOX that attempts have been made by both prosecution and defence lawyers to get hold of their original tapes. They have tried to use a comment he made out of context, suggesting that he would be ready to hand over all recordings. This will not happen, Rob assured DOX. He has told both sides they are welcome to use the film when it is on public release, but access to the raw film has not, and will not, be given (unless of course a subpoena is issued). Nuon Chea’s Dutch lawyers came to see the film at the IDFA festival in Amsterdam, and thanked the filmmakers for the information in it, since they had, quote, “…not yet received detailed instructions from their client.”
What triggers people who have been carrying around secrets of atrocities for thirty years to start talking about the past? Nuon Chea is nearly 85 now, and at the time of filming, he lived quietly in a small wooden house with his wife. He has never admitted that he ordered any killings. Journalist and co-director Sambath, approaches him with patience – of the kind rarely seen in contemporary journalism. Three years passed without a single word in response, another four years before the film captures an admission never made before. Sambath does not mention that his own family was victim to the killings until the very end of the film, and it is clear that this is not a personal vendetta project. It is, he says, “an attempt to understand why, not for journalism, but for the next generation.” He seems driven by a need to investigate the truth, not to confirm any previously formed judgment or secure an apology.
This patient approach is building trust with Nuon Chea, and with Suon and Khoun, two peasant killers from the villages who participated in the massacres. He obtains admissions from all of them. They tell their stories as though confiding secrets to a friend, yet they are aware of their historic significance. The words we hear from these killers are evocative: “The bubbling of the decomposing bodies, the smell of blood worse than buffalo flesh, the bitter taste of the human gall bladders.” But we as viewers are not the only ones to feel sick: the perpetrators have lived with this for many years, and have felt terrible about it, “My mind, my soul, my body spin round. All the things I did flash around in my head.”
On film, Sambath introduces the peasant killers to their bosses, first to Sister Em who had been their immediate boss, and then Nuon Chea himself. It is a physical re-enactment of the hierarchy of orders that were given and received. The gulf between Brother Number Two and everyone below him, with regard to their feelings about being involved in the genocide, becomes clear. For Suon, Khoun and Sister Em, they were all carrying out orders issued by someone higher up. Not one of them seems to have understood who was giving the original order. All of them knew, at least in retrospect, that they did wrong, but they felt themselves to have been entrapped in a system in which they had to save their own skins. The killings were clearly followed by years of silent remorse and regret. Suon wonders how many ‘holes of hell’ he will have to live through before he can be reborn as a human being. Nuon Chea, for his part, tries to convince both Khoun and Suon that they should be proud, that they have not sinned because they had been carrying out orders – they never had any prior intentions.
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