Monday, July 26, 2010

Lemkin/Sambath's ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE: again, Cambodia's "killing fields"

A political philosophy that trumps decency, intelligence and honor by allowing mass murder of its own people; and the concept of the state as all-important and the individual as next-to-nothing. These "ideas" have seldom been brought home with more force and despair than they are in the new documentary ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE, from film-making duo Thet Sambath (below, right) and  Rob Lemkin (below, left). The pair met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Sambath, whose father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, was investigating how and why this political/revolutionary group managed to slaughter so many of its own countrymen (and women and children).  Lemkin, with no familial connection to Cambodia or the "killing fields," has his own history with genocide, via the Holocaust, during which many of his father's family died at the hands of the Nazis genocide.  Lemkin was investigating rumors he had heard about Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, when the two men met, found they had much in common and decided to work together.

The result of their labors is an odd, unusual, homemade-looking but quite fascinating and disturbing movie that revisits those killing fields from the point of view of Sambath, who subsequently lost his mother (who, after the murder of her husband, was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier and subsequently died in childbirth) and brother, who "disappeared" during a party "purge."  The young Cambodian man, who is from the countryside where so much of the killing took place, revisited the area and, over years, befriended the locals, who included some of the killers, former top brass, and even Nuon Chea, aka "Brother # 2" and second-in-command to Pol Pot.

The finished film includes various talking-head interviews with all these people who, over time and with much quiet resolve, Sambath has convinced to tell their tales.  What they know is tantamount to a confession of guilt to some of the worst slaughter of our time, and if it takes its toll on the tellers, it does so, too, on us listeners. Hearing (and then watching) a fellow demonstrate how he slit the throat of bound man after bound man is shocking and finally deadening.  And this is some of the lighter stuff.

Why didn't the populace object?  Doesn't every nation finally play "follow the leader," whether in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, or lately in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, I am sorry, it's all comparable -- whether one is killing one's own people at home, as in the first two cases, or going abroad to do it to both our own soldiers and those of the "aggressor" state. Sambath wants to learn why this happened, and I think he and Lemkin comes closer than anyone else to discovering the why of Cambodia.  As stupid as the answer is, it is also, most probably, to be expected.

Pol Pot and Nuon Chea (shown above, left, and below, right, with Sambath) were both utter beginners to revolution.  They saw what had happened (and was still happening) in Vietnam, via the USA, who had also bombed Cambodia.  They did not trust the Vietnamese, neither the North nor the South, and so they looked instead for help and role model to China. Yes, China -- that exemplary, historical beacon for human rights (I jest). The two Cambodians simply took the Chinese Communist philosophy and applied it to their homeland, where they found, oddly enough, much of the populace wanting in proper revolutionary zeal. This was a problem that had to be solved, and the "solution" was massacre (we hear this word used over and over by a number of interviewees who speak of killing as "solving").  "Pol Pol and Nuon Chea wanted to be more 'Communist' than China," notes one fellow.  They sure were.

Some of the most horrible events are related quietly, while the camera catches backgrounds of extraordinary beauty. Occasional bits of historic newsreel footage are interspersed among the talking heads.  What we see and hear will, of course, bring to mind the Nazi/Jewish Holocaust, but in this case, thanks to Sambath, the "perps" are willing to talk and finally to confess.  This takes some time. Early on, one man insists that he actually killed but a single person; by the end of the film, he's telling us about executing ten or twelve -- on a daily basis.  By the time we get ours heads around a little of the cannibalism, well, the game is nearly up.

For his part, Nuon Chea insists that "If you had no sinful intention in your actions, then there is no sin." Hmmpf: Was he raised as a Catholic, perhaps?  He also tells us, "If we had shown mercy to the people, the nation would have been lost!"   Again: putting the state above the individual in the cruelest of ways.  "We would investigate a person," he goes on to explain, "and then we would 'solve' him."  Of course: Just like we solve our roach or mosquito problem. But then it's really boundless, isn't it -- man's inhumanity to man?

As I write this review, an email has suddenly arrived, explaining that the first verdict was handed down literally  today in the UN-backed Cambodian genocide tribunal: Kaing Guek Eav*, alias Duch, the head of the infamous S-1 torture prison, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for charges that included crimes against humanity. Pol Pot's second-in-command, Nuon Chea, mentioned above, is presently awaiting trial as the tribunal's second case.

These are old men already, unlikely to live out their sentences.  Well, it's all part of some kind of "truth and reconciliation."  We already knew what Cambodia had wrought. And now we know a bit more about why and how. But I do wonder, what have we learned that will prevent this from happening again?

Enemies of the People, an International Film Circuit release, open this Friday, July 30, at New York City's Quad Cinema and on August 6 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall -- probably to qualify for a possible Academy Award nomination.  Like The Cove (but long after the fact and in a much quieter manner), this activist documentary, too, goes after some murderous perpetrators. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the film on the Academy's documentary "short list" come this winter.... 

* Already, just one hour later, this fellow's sentence has been reduced by nearly half (click his link, for an update).... 

6 comments:

cambodialife said...

I like this peice you have writen. It is great.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Cambodialife. I went to your site, as well. It's interesting -- and very sweet (and I mean that in a good way!)

Tivea Koam said...

Thank James for complimentation. I will keep writing more when I have feeling and time and great to know your blog.

James van Maanen, said...

You are welcome, Tivea. (Or do you names in reverse order from the way we do, so that this is your last name?). Anyway, keep up the good work!

khmerexpress said...

I have already reversed the name so Tivea is my first name. Oh I have just attended Online Journalism workshop; I hope I can do better with my blog.

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Tivea--
I am sure you will do well. Thanks for setting me straight on your name -- and best wishes for your new blog!