An Unblinking Look at Cambodia’s Past

By Patrick Barta

It may be one of the most important films about Cambodia ever made. But very few people there have had the chance to see it — much less know it exists.

“Enemies of the People” tells the story of Thet Sambath, a Phnom Penh journalist who spent more than a decade trying to find and understand the Khmer Rouge cadres who helped oversee the murder or death of more than a million Cambodians when their radical Communist regime governed the country in the late 1970s.

For the most part, Khmer Rouge rank-and-file have denied crimes or played down their involvement, blaming superiors for forcing them to act. But in the film, which is scheduled to air on Channel NewsAsia Friday evening in Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Jakarta, followed by other screenings in Bangkok, Melbourne and elsewhere, Mr. Thet Sambath succeeds where other journalists and investigators have failed by convincing Khmer Rouge members to come clean about their crimes, providing a vital record for history — and a riveting and chilling film.

In one scene, a former Khmer Rouge cadre matter-of-factly describes how he and others personally butchered scores of people, often at night, and then cast their bodies into shallow graves. Some were killed by a nearby banyan tree, the man says; others were disposed of at nearby ditch by a dead palm tree. A genial neighbor describes how ponds bubbled afterwards as the water mixed with decomposing bodies.

In another scene, Mr. Thet Sambath asks one of the men to demonstrate how he murdered his victims. The man begs off a bit but then obliges, grasping a bystander by his face and running a blunt-edged knife across his throat, as the victim laughs awkwardly.

“Enemies of the People” follows in the footsteps of many acclaimed studies of Southeast Asia’s dark days of the 1970s, from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now” to the most famous movie about Cambodia, 1984′s “The Killing Fields,” which starred Sam Waterston as a New York Times journalist covering the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime. It’s also in the tradition of soul-searching documentaries such as Errol Morris’s “Fog of War,” a 2003 release that relied on extended, candid interviews with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to prize out insights into the nature of guilt and remorse. With beautifully shot footage of the Cambodian countryside and tightly-edited portraits of the killers themselves, “Enemies of the People” works not only as a historical document, but also as a work of art in its own right.

The film isn’t known to most people in Cambodia, though. Mr. Thet Sambath and his filmmaking partner, Rob Lemkin, screened the film several times at a small German-Cambodian cultural center in Phnom Penh. But they say the government has declined to give a license for wide release in public cinemas or in more remote provinces where much of the violence occurred, and where many of the killers, never held accountable for their crimes, continue to live quiet lives. A number of former Khmer Rouge officials retain posts in the current government, headed by one-time Khmer Rouge member Hun Sen, who later defected — and isn’t accused of any crimes related to the group’s years in power from the mid-1970s to 1979.

Critics of the government say it just doesn’t want to dig up too much about the past.

“We want to go to a major cinema, that way more people would know about” what happened, Mr. Thet Sambath says. But he doubts there will be a wide release anytime soon.

Sin Chan Saya, director of the cinema department under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia, says the government has received a request from Mr. Thet Sambath but needs a more formal letter “for inspection.”

“The film is good and I am fond of it,” he said, but since it involves issues now under investigation by a United Nations-backed tribunal, it isn’t his position to decide whether it can be shown widely. “I will put it to my minister when there is formal permission request,” Mr. Sin Chan Saya said, adding that it remains unclear whether the filmmakers had full permission to make the film. “Who gave permission before shooting? What is the purpose of the film?”

“Enemies of the People” has drawn considerable notice outside of Cambodia, however. It won a special jury prize at Sundance last year and has opened to positive reviews across the U.S. and Europe.

Mr. Thet Sambath’s technique involves unwavering, some would say obsessive, persistence in pursuing his quarry across Cambodia’s backroads, in some cases spending years to develop personal relationships with the killers and earn their trust. He makes clear he won’t judge them, or at least not openly—an approach that’s all more the surprising given that Mr. Thet Sambath’s parents both died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

His aim, he says, is only to learn the truth — and understand why they did what they did.

“I am not on the side of the victims. I am not on the side of the Khmer Rouge. If I go to one side, of the victims, for my family, it is not the truth,” he said. He compares his quest to the work of historians who still can’t fully explain the rise and fall of Cambodia’s famous ancient city, Angkor Wat. “The Khmer Rouge will be the same if we don’t get them to tell the truth.”

Mr. Thet Sambath says he believes many former Khmer Rouge officials who are still alive want to open up, because they want the truth to be told, too. How deeply they feel remorse is less clear—they say they are remorseful in the film, and in some cases appear profoundly troubled by their past, but they also are quick to blame higher-ups who they say ordered them to kill.

That leads Mr. Thet Sambath to one of the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge figures remaining: The man commonly known as Brother No. 2, Nuon Chea, who was the right-hand man of the main Khmer Rouge leader, the late Pol Pot. Now in his mid-80s, he is facing trial at the U.N.-backed tribunal but it’s unclear whether he’ll tell everything he knows, or live long enough to do so.

He tells plenty in “Enemies of the People,” though, and some of the film’s most powerful and emotionally complex scenes depict the deepening relationship between Mr. Thet Sambath and the man accused of mass murder, as the journalist works to wear down his defenses. Like Mr. Thet Sambath, the film avoids making snap judgements, showing Mr. Nuon Chea in apparently tender moments with children and living in modest conditions in a wooden rural house before his arrest in 2007. The two men develop what almost seems like a father-son relationship.

In the end, Mr. Sambath gets his truth: The victims, Mr. Nuon Chea says, were enemies of the people that needed to be “solved” and killed, a horrifying admission but one that also offers some measure of satisfaction, since at least the truth is being told.

The documentary continues to make its way around the film circuit world-wide and is scheduled to run on Channel NewsAsia Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Singapore and Hong Kong (at 5 p.m. in India; 6:30 p.m. in Jakarta). It is slated to open in Bangkok and Melbourne in May and screenings are also scheduled in Wellington, New Zealand, this month.

Additional reporting by Sun Narin.