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Thet Sambath, left, & Nuon Chea, aka Brother No. 2 (Photo: International Film Circuit)

Written, Produced & Directed by
Rob Lemkin & Thet Sambath
Released by International Film Circuit
English & Khmer with English subtitles
Cambodia/UK. 94 min. Not Rated  

Enemies of the People is much more than a stunning exposé of how the Khmer Rouge Communists of Cambodia methodically killed almost two million of their own citizens in the 1970’s. This unique documentary is also a powerful tribute to the personal quest of one lone obsessive journalist who sought first-hand testimony from the perpetratorswho spoke for the first time to anyone. Thirty years later, they are still unpunished in a country trying to forget.

In his spare time over 10 years, Thet Sambath made frequent forays to the countryside where he was born, despite the resentment and worry of his wife and children living in the capital. He found the elderly members of the former Khmer Rouge (some now living in the hinterlands under different identities, some still engaging in politics) and gradually gained their trust and then eventually their permission to film their confessions, and, for the record, to literally point to where the bodies are buried. He walks with them through the explicit details of the whole chain of command—the top man who gave the orders, a functionary who organized the round-ups, and the men who slit the throats of so many victims. Only the peasants, who actually wielded the bloody axes like chicken butchers, are wracked with guilty nightmares. They worry how their pasts will affect their Buddhist reincarnation.

As ground breaking as these interviews are, Sambath’s personal feat of emotional control while talking and dining with these ex-radicals is astounding, including when he visits massacre sites with them. Only to the camera of British documentarian Rob Lemkin (whose distant relative Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943) does he say what drives him. His father was executed, his mother died after a forced marriage to a Khmer Rouge militiaman, and his older brother was arrested in a purge and disappeared. He only survived by escaping to a refugee camp in Thailand as a child.

By the Khmer Rouge’s rigid standards of paranoid class warfare, his peasant father deserved elimination because he owned a water buffalo. This chilling insight into the fanatical mindset of a heretofore unfathomable and extremist cadre particularly comes out in Sambath’s deceptively quiet conversations with Brother No. 2, the nom de party leadership of Nuon Chea. Over several years of visits, Sambath buries any hints of outrage or vengeance to draw from the affable, comfortably settled grandfather to describe how he took power with the help of the Chinese, anointed Pol Pot to become the face of the government, and, as he still sees it, defended the country from the Americans and the Vietnamese. Anyone against their revolution—ethnic minorities, the educated, and property-owners along with their families—were simply enemies of the people.

Enemies of the People will screen in Phnom Penh the same week it opens in the U.S., and the filmmakers will then hand over a print to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which were set up jointly with the U.N. in 2006. That will add to the evidence of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide charged to the 85-year-old Brother No, 2, who was arrested soon after Sambath finished their time together. His trial—only the second one against any one in the Khmer Rouge—is expected to begin next year. (Ironically, his and other’s testimonies may not have come out if they thought there would be legal consequences in facing tribunals.)

There have been many documentaries about genocides and war crimes trials (how distasteful to use the plurals), from World War II to the Balkans and Africa. But Enemies of the People is the first film to show, close-up and in person, the faces and voices of living perpetrators of massive slaughter from the highest policymaker down through the administrator and the lowest killer. We face the horrible realization that they are just human beings. Nora Lee Mandel
July 30, 2010



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