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.
In contrast to the still-tormented killers, Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two, is passionate about the need for what he and Pol Pot set in motion. This is particularly clear when he talks about his sense of nationalism: “If I need to choose between the nation and the people – the individual I cast aside. They must be solved first.” He talks of ‘the problem’ which needed to ‘be solved’. The problem is the Vietnamese – who he believes had a network of spies and traitors throughout the party and the country. These people belonged to a faction of the Khmer Rouge that was more supportive of Vietnam, in stark contrast to the pro-Chinese faction of the same party to which both Pol Pot and Nuon Chea belonged. This latter faction was vehemently anti-Vietnamese, determined not to be colonized by them in the same way that they had seen them colonized by the French. The essence of the message that Nuon Chea passed down to the village and regional chiefs was: “Find the Vietnamese spy networks and find a solution. Find the traitors, and kill them.”
Nuon Chea tells Sambath that it was his decision alone to recruit Pol Pot, that it was he who asked Pol Pot to be Secretary General of the party. They discussed everything and never argued. He admits they ‘made mistakes’, but he blames their failure on: “Enemy spies that attacked and sabotaged us from the start. Before that, it was a clear-sighted regime, a peaceful regime, but we failed”.
Maybe this insight into internal political differences and the ways in which orders were given and passed down from one level to the next provides the basis for understanding why the killings took place.
What is not addressed in Enemies of the People is why Nuon Chea, or Pol Pot, should have felt so hostile towards Vietnam and the United States. A brief audio snippet of Nixon, saying “we launch this bombing campaign not as an act of aggression, but as one to end the Vietnam War” may hint at a cause, but a longer story is out there. The origins of the political conflict within the Khmer Rouge, Rob Lemkin tells DOX, will be the subject of the follow-up film. Whether audiences will be ready to absorb new messages from this particular historical episode will be interesting to observe. How we understand what happened depends on our cultural, social and political backgrounds. Noam Chomsky warns us against current versions of history carefully redesigned in the interests of power. How prepared are we to see if there are alternative explanations to those we have made up our minds about? Are we capable of such a process?
Yet the other films recently released on this subject are more coloured by their filmmaker’s backgrounds. A spectrum of films exists that, if you view them all, provides a fascinating insight into how our view of history is influenced by our personal starting points.
Two of these other films feature Khieu Samphan, the Pol Pot supporter who was President and Head of State of Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979, a position which, in his eyes, was far removed from involvement in the acts of genocide. His chief responsibilities, he argues, were limited to providing a link between the leaders of the Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk. He uses the documentaries as an opportunity to protest his ignorance and innocence, while never betraying his unending respect for patriot Pol Pot.
Facing Genocide: Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot (2010) is made by two Swedish documentarians who travel to Cambodia and talk to Khieu in the period just before he was arrested by the ECCC. The filmmakers end up exhausted from Khieu Samhpan’s constant defence of Pol Pot, and his inability to go much beyond the current worldview of the events. Yet this is a film with a comprehensive overview of the subject; it has interesting interviews and is well put together. Facing Genocide has a scene in which Khieu Samphan takes the filmmakers to meet his friend Nuon Chea. The latter has nothing to say to these outsiders, emphasising the unique achievements of Thet Sambath in Enemies of the People. To get new confessions depends on years of trust-building.
Survive: In the Heart of Khmer Rouge Madness (2009) is an emotional return to the village where Roshane Saidnattar was taken as a child, torn away from her privileged city life, and thrown into the harshness of the ‘killing fields’ countryside. She is bitter as only such a victim can be. She too meets Khieu Samphan, without revealing her background. Here too he is friendly and forthcoming, and repeats he knew nothing. The defence argument being used by Khieu Samphan’s lawyer is that his was a more ceremonial position: he was not responsible for ordering the killings. Khieu maintains that it was Pol Pot and Nuon Chea who decided upon the strategic direction of how to ‘solve the problem’.
The final European film I Dreamed about Pol Pot (2009) is one man’s personal journey to reassess his support for the Khmer Rouge during the time the genocide was being carried out. In 1974, Pol Pot invited selected journalists to Cambodia to report back on the success of his vision. Gunnar Bergström travelled with Jan Myrdal and two others; (the Scot, Malcolm Caldwell also visited Pol Pot on a similar mission and was murdered the night after meeting him). The documentary follows Bergström on his return in 2008 to say sorry. He admits he made a ‘mistake’ in ignoring the rumours of starvation and torture coming from the refugee camps and documented in the book by Ponchaud, saying: “We did all we could to ignore the evidence. I never reflected”. When we hear Bergström say: “People lost their significance in my calculations,” we hear echoes of Nuon Chea’s view on the individual. In addition, they both tell stories about dreaming about Pol Pot. “What would it have taken to get Bergström to have changed his opinion of Pol Pot?” ask the filmmakers. “I would have needed something to have removed the filter on my brain” is the telling reply.
How Enemies of the People is received by Cambodians is of great importance to the directors. They want it to be released with outreach programmes in the local communities. When Sambath eventually reveals on film that his family was a victim of the regime, Nuon Chea’s reaction is to say: ‘I was always struck by your graciousness. I am truly sorry’. The apology seems to reach out to many exiled Cambodians who are survivors of the Killing Fields, and who have recently seen the film.
Director Rob Lemkin tells DOX: “They have told me they want to travel back to Cambodia and meet the men who admit to the killings, and hug them. They are grateful for their confessions, they feel lightened”. In Salt Lake City they reacted by saying “The fact he has spoken means it is true”. Some Americans who come to the film were also involved in the seventies: In California Lemkin was taken to the screening by a man who had worked for Nixon’s Department of Defence, and who had been in IndoChina at that time planning the bombing sites. A former US Special Forces agent in South East Asia rose at the end of the Sundance screening to say to director Sambath:“We let you down”. There may be many who, having seen Enemies of the People, will feel a sense of relief, and others who will dare to talk for the first time.
The Prime Minister of Cambodia is due to see the film, and with his blessing added to that already received from the Minister of Culture, the film will be screened locally. Sambath will then continue his one-man truth and reconciliation process, facilitated now by this amazing film. Maybe more will be achieved though this project than the courts could ever manage.