The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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MINDS OF MURDERERS. Enemies of the People, a documentary in which filmmaker Thet Sambath confronts various members of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and uncovers personal explanations and confessions for the genocide, airs July 21 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. Pictured are Thet Sambath (right) with Nuon Chea, a.k.a. Brother No. 2. (Photo courtesy of Enemies of the People)
From The Asian Reporter, V21, #13 (July 4, 2011), page 10.
Patience, kindness, forbearance
Enemies of the People
Directed and produced by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath
Presented by P.O.V.
Airing Thursday, July 21 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
Between 1975 and 1979, nearly two million people, approximately a quarter of Cambodia’s population, perished, victims of execution and starvation, at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. A decade in the making, Enemies of the People is the story of a journalist’s quest to find out why, but this astonishing documentary is much more than an examination of atrocity set against the peaceful bucolic landscapes of contemporary Cambodia. It is journalism raised to dizzying heights, a record of patience, kindness, and forbearance in which ultimately even terror dissolves.
Thet Sambath, a senior reporter with The Phnom Penh Post, lost his parents and his brother during the Khmer Rouge years, before he turned 10 years old. His viewers know this, but the primary subject of his interviews, Nuon Chea, the highest-ranking surviving Khmer Rouge leader, does not. It takes Sambath more than three years to gain the trust of the man known as Brother No. 2, and another five years to record the details.
When Nuon Chea begins to tell Sambath about the killings, he justifies the actions because the "criminals" were "enemies of the people." Asked if these people could have been imprisoned instead of killed, he insists that the killing was necessary because "the country was in danger of being taken over by Vietnam."
In retrospect, Nuon Chea says, "I am regretful and I have remorse. I am sorry for our regime. I am sorry. We won the war, we beat the enemy, but then we were defeated. The people were left still poor and suffering."
Near the end of Enemies of the People, as Nuon Chea’s arrest is nearing, Sambath tells Nuon Chea the real fate of his family and apologizes for not having told him earlier.
"I saw only your graciousness," replies Nuon Chea, hinting that he should have known. "I would like to say how deeply sorry I am."
The camera lingers on the two men for a little longer than is comfortable, then on Sambath replaying the recording of Nuon Chea’s apology. In a film brimming with the singular beauty of Cambodia — wisps of clouds reflected in muddy water, roofs of temples, dusty children on bicycles — this simple and stunning footage of two human beings moving toward reconciliation is a reminder that it never is too late to take right action.
Sambath also interviews killers at lower levels, and even tries to persuade one of them, a man named Mr. Suon, to demonstrate his killing technique on the journalist.
"Just pretend to kill me, I don’t mind," Sambath assures him, but Mr. Suon admits he feels embarrassed and uncomfortable. But a stand-in, reassured that the knife to be used in the demonstration is plastic, agrees to play the victim, and the viewer comes as close as he or she could possibly want to being a witness to the killing fields.
"I want this documentary shown all over the country, in the provinces, in the cities," says Mr. Suon. "Then people who were killers in the regime will come forward and say, ‘Yeah, I used to do that, too.’ Their public confessions will be an archive for the next generation."
Arrested in 2007, Nuon Chea remains in jail. Mr. Suon, like many Khmer Rouge killers, is free, yet he ponders his karmic debt. "I don’t know what I’ll be reborn as in the next life. How many holes of hell must I go through before I can be reborn as a human again?"
"Some may say no good can come from talking to killers and dwelling on past horror, but I say these people have sacrificed a lot to tell the truth," says Thet Sambath. "In daring to confess, they have done good, perhaps the only good thing left that they can do. They and all killers like them must be part of the process of reconciliation if my country is to move forward."
Enemies of the People airs at 7:30pm on Thursday, July 21 on Oregon Public Broadcasting Plus. To verify showtime, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>.