19 March 2012

Our Pol Pot

A Film from Cambodia

To understand Cambodian film, or Cambodia, really, you should watch Katanho (2003) crammed onto a vinyl couch with thirty-two women half your age. They should be children of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime—or, in some cases, the children of Khmer Rouge—a generation not taught in school or the media about the mass killings that took place in their country thirty-five years ago, young people who watch as their government pardons, excuses, or downplays the disastrous attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create an agrarian utopia. This is a generation who did not know until recently what happened in their country in the 1970s. Whether out of shame, humiliation, resentment, sorrow, or anger, their parents did not tell them about it. Entire families: slaughtered, starved, disappeared—the families of these young women, seated on the couch next to you, watching the melodrama to end all melodramas. A socially acceptable way to grieve.

Katanho, or Gratefulness, a Khmer film directed by Heng Tola and starring Ly Chan Siha, is said to be based on the true story of a young girl, named Lyka in the film, even though the plot bears close resemblance to two Thai films, 1985’s Walli and 1999’s Neang Nak. Born to a destitute family in the impoverished provinces, Lyka lives with her hard-working parents and blind grandmother. Each member of her family falls ill in succession; her schoolwork suffers. The Wikipedia entry for the film, written in Khmenglish by a clearly affected fan, describes the remainder of the events in Lyka’s sob story:

“One day, Lyka wrote an Essay which telling a misery life and gratefulness of herself to the class as well as the writing made every classmate including the teacher knew the true life of Lyka. Her essay about her life was published in a newspaper and generous donations flooded in both from inside Cambodia and from foreign countries to Lyka’s family which fed her family and paid the hospital bills for Lyka’s mother. Lyka’s mother life was like the sunset as Lyka was too late to cure her mother from the illness. At the end, we see Lyka was sitting on railway for a moment and then walking along it when thinking of her life at tomorrow while the sunset.”

While watching this film, your young friends on the couch wail, heave, sob, and leave the room to more completely express their grief. Many fought to stay in school past the third grade, when most girls from impoverished provinces are removed from formal education to care for families and tend rice fields. Every one of them understands, then, the frustration of daily poverty, and how illness, disability, and accidents upset your accrued stability. All of them believe that a moment of honesty, of sharing your “true life” causes dramatic and international action. You, on the couch, are sympathetic, but the unending sorrow of your friends agitates you. Not emotionally: Cambodia is a desperately sad place anyway. Just in terms of the wetness of tears, which given your position as the only one in the room not losing your shit entirely, in combination with the heat, has your shirt soaked through and stuck to your chest. Being there is, in every way, very, very uncomfortable. Film in Khmer culture acts as an emotional release for all the hidden things these young people were never told about their history, their families, or their country. Cinema in Cambodia—the medium itself—is metaphor. It stands in for historical memory. It makes it tolerable. And unnecessary.

Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s documentary Enemies of the People, however—the drastically un-Cambodian Cambodian film that won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010—is not a metaphor. It is instead a “noble masterpiece,” a title Susan Sontag gave Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s 1978 Hitler: A Film From Germany. Like that earlier film, Enemies of the People “spoils our tolerance for the others,” as she writes. It is the true “true life” of Cambodia, not standing in for historical memory and alleviating the need for it, but providing it where it is not wanted. The discomfort you feel watching Katanho with a group of young Khmer women? It is only a hint of how Enemies of the People feels in Cambodia.


Enemies of the People is a documentary, a vision tracked by reporter Thet Sambath in secret for a decade with a hand-held video camera. Sambath is a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language daily, and this is key: his work is an act of Western-influenced journalism. (Rob Lemkin, a Brit who shares director and producer credits, has made several films about Southeast Asia for the BBC and the History Channel.) Reporters in Cambodia, particularly those that work for Khmer-language media outlets, are regularly threatened, beaten, killed, or go into hiding following government-backed pressure to censor their work. In 2007, former Khmer Rouge cadre and current Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a public address in which he defined the concept of “freedom of speech” as the freedom to say positive things about the government. This is a film that would not have been possible without globalization. Yet its aspirations are local. An hour and thirty-four minutes of: how did the Khmer Rouge regime happen? 

It is a uniquely intense question to ask in cinema, and in Cambodia. A film like Katanho asks more generally how tragedy occurs. Watching the melodrama, viewers suffer genuinely through the narrative of an individual, a commoner. This is the value Katanho’s claim that it is based on a true story, an important distinction in Khmer art and culture. In truth, Katanho’s similarities to the aforementioned Thai films are widely acknowledged, so the notion of being “based on a true story” is more an indicator of merit than integrity. Colloquially, Cambodians often speak of romantic adventures, stories of true love that end in death and mourning, and these are also said to be “based on a true story.” It is significant when more stories are told in a country that are based on truth than there are true stories told, each worse than any fiction you have ever imagined. In the logic of Katanho, Lyka’s story would be multiplied by the number of Cambodians alive in 2003, and that is the weight of sorrow the film asks you to carry. Enemies of the People, however, looks at the machinations that caused the fictionalized, but commonly experienced events in Katanho. It wants to tell the story not only of the twelve million people alive in Cambodia in 2003, but of all those that perished in the latter half of the 1970s. It wants to show you how they died.

In scope and intention, although not technique or artistry, Enemies of the People reminds us of Syberberg’s Hitler, an epic seven-hour experimental film that made use of puppets, a small array of actors, a cramped film set on a stage, collage, and totemic props to tell a story about genocide. Hitler: A Film From Germany is as melodramatic as Katanho. Instead of a yarn about a young girl’s tragedy, however, it strives to narrate the story of Germany, the story of film, the story of pathos, and the story of all the genocides everywhere that do, somehow, always manage to occur. “The film tries to say everything,” Sontag writes. “The film tries to be everything.”

There between the emblematic individualism, rooted in a unique national context, of Katanho, and the deliberate overreaching nationalism of Hitler: A Film from Germany, the simple aspiration of Enemies of the People is to ponder why approximately two million people were killed in Cambodia by Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. It is not trying to say everything, not trying to be everything. Unless you are Cambodian.


A hand-held camera, a curious and emotionally involved reporter, and a potentially unlimited supply of mass murderers. Also: chickens; houses on stilts; curious aunties; kroma, the checked scarves Cambodians wear; dirt; rice paddies; rain; plastic knife and a fire. These are the props of Enemies of the People

To establish his quest through this terrain, Sambath narrates a brief history of late 20th century Cambodia, in English. Arguably, then, in a sense the film was made for American audiences, even though English is the second-most spoken langauge in Cambodia; and, after a first-run release in New York, it was shown in 2011 on the PBS documentary series POV. Sambath explains that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US lead a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, in an effort to drive out Vietnamese insurgents hiding, supposedly, in the southeast of the country. Historians estimate that around 150,000 Khmer were killed at that time, and this approximate tally fails to take into consideration things like lost cattle and burned crops, which were major contributors to pre-Khmer Rouge, post-bombing hunger, poverty, and death in the region. The Khmer Rouge tasked themselves with liberating the country from US imperialists, and on April 17, 1975, drove all Phnom Penh residents out into the countryside to farm rice with the simple explanation that Americans might start bombing the city. Few doubted the possibility. By the time Sambath’s quest began in 2001, in the far opposite end of the country—the northwest provinces—the mistrust for the US that had been instilled still lingered. Despite that, during that same period, the nation had grown increasingly reliant on the US dollar—not the mythical one at the heart of global commerce, but the actual one that is used more commonly throughout the country than the Cambodian Riel.

Mythology, history, death. Enemies of the People opens with the dreams of two Cambodian men: one, a low-level cadre, shares nightmares of the killing he’s done. He dictates the nightmares matter-of-factly. Later in the film, he demonstrates, just as coldly, how he did the killing. The other man dreams of Pol Pot. Nothing but Pol Pot, the translated subtitles read. Since the infamous Khmer Rouge leader’s death in 1998, that is what his mind settles on every night.

If you do not follow Cambodian news, you may not recognize that the second man is Nuon Chea, born Lau Ben Kon in 1926. Describing his position in the Khmer Rouge, the man called Brother Number Two recalls for viewers the moment he handed the reigns of power to Pol Pot—although, he adds, they continued to make all decisions together. Except for the killing, he claims. That was a program of the dead man’s he now says he questioned. 

Nuon Chea is currently awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunals on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He has no reason to believe an expression of regret will not alleviate his punishment. A terse apology in 1998, following a deal cut with the Cambodian government, allowed him to live as a free man for a decade on the Thai border where, eventually, Sambath found him. The tribunal’s verdict against Kaing Guek Eav, the S-21 torture-prison chief called Duch, who was prosecuted in the first of the four planned trials, was a slight nineteen years with time served. Few proclaim in the heavily government-controlled press that the punishment was too light: many decry it as unjust.

But this is not the only Nuon Chea we see. The one he presents to Sambath and to us is a formal, regretful man. We see also his delusions. On screen he is both there, in front of Sambath at a worn wooden table, responding pleasantly to questions. Also he is on the viewfinder of the video camera, or on the editing screen, reflected. Reflective. “Ours was . . . a peaceful regime,” Nuon Chea tells Sambath, explaining that their work was done to protect the Khmer people from US and Vietnamese insurgents.

“If I compare my work to the battlefield, I think I work harder,” Sambath tells the viewer in a voiceover. The battlefield of the Pol Pot regime was not only physical, however. They were fighting an ideological war, one in which the enemy was only marked by the absence of belief in Angkar, or the organization—the Khmer Rouge did not call themselves the Khmer Rouge. Full-blooded Khmer were safe, according to Nuon Chea. The only problem was that they looked the same as Khmer with French or Vietnamese blood. The enemies of the people, as Nuon Chea describes them, were rarely apparent. Mistakes may have been made. A few. Yet by and large, Brother Number Two asserts, those killed under the Khmer Rouge were, by definition, not ethnic Khmer; they were the enemy.

Except that they were ethnic Khmer: The majority of those killed under the Khmer Rouge regime were the same race, ethnicity, and religion as the killers. Years after Nuon Chea’s assertions to the contrary were filmed, just as the tribunal was getting underway in 2008, this fact would have legal repercussions: genocide can only be perpetrated against others, whether you have wiped out a quarter of a population or not. Sambath’s own paper, the Phnom Penh Post, published figures in late 2010 that suggested around nineteen percent of the ethnic Khmer population alive at the time perished under the Khmer Rouge.

It is an inner battle, largely with himself, that Sambath refers to. His own father and brother were killed under Pol Pot, his mother forced to remarry a soldier—a euphemistic description of a common occurrence under the Angkar that sounds like rape to me. Sambath’s mother later died in childbirth; he lived under starvation conditions and was forced into labor as a youth. Sambath has every reason to want harm to come to his friend of a decade standing, Nuon Chea, whom he calls uncle out of respect, this man he films playing with grandchildren and who he lied to for years so as not to distress him with guilt over his family’s deaths, the man he tracked down at great expense to himself. Sambath’s wife, at one point, asks him for money to feed their children, but the filmmaker says it must go into his project. When helicopters come at the end of the film to take the former second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge into custody to await his trial, Sambath suggests he escape. “Why don’t you run away to Malaysia?” he asks. 

Nuon Chea demures, saying nothing from behind a pair of cool, cool sunglasses.


This is territory covered earlier in Hitler: A Film From Germany (which was first released in the US under the title Our Hitler). Syberberg requests sympathy from his viewers, so they may understand how Hitler came to power through the genuine love, respect, and admiration of the German Volk. This is true and history cannot erase it. Later, it was true of Austrian folk as well. For a long time, even, it was also true for my own great auntie, an American whose travel diaries describe the handsome young Nazis she encountered on her first excursion abroad. Dashing, she calls them. Their cause is exciting, she says. National Socialism intrigued her. It wanted to eliminate homelessness, unemployment, and poverty, she writes. My great aunt genuinely wanted it to work.

I should mention that what time I have not spent in the US in the last four years I have divided between Germany and Cambodia. Maybe it is more relevant to note that I was born in South Dakota, on a reservation adjacent to Pine Ridge. A domestic mass killing occurred there, a genocide in the legal definition of the term, that still goes unacknowledged by most Americans. The planned death and planned illness and planned accidents that plagued my godparents, my parents’ best friends, the children I played with, are all read on the rez as elements of the genocide of Native Americans. It is a matter of perspective, I suppose. Syberberg’s Himmler calls these American mass killings necessary, a mere side effect of settlers just wanting that land. Genocides happen for many reasons. They happen out of love. Desire for change. Respect.

Such respect is evident in Enemies of the People. When Thet Sambath meets with Nuon Chea and other lower-level cadres, killers all, he apologizes for asking them about the deaths. And when requested to show the filmmaker how these murders unfolded, to physically re-enact them with a plastic knife, the killers, in turn, apologize to the person playing the victim when it becomes uncomfortable.


Cinema in Cambodia stands in for real events. In a largely illiterate country, metaphors and symbols have functional, daily application. Cambodia’s traditional monarchy holds flagging political force today, but this was not always so. When beloved King Father Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne in 1941, he hoped to continue his art and music career. A passable, or good, flute player—concise descriptions of his talents are difficult to come by—he banned other flautists from radio play in the early days of his reign, thus ensuring record sales and nationwide musical fame. When he moved on to film he took a less overt approach to conquering the medium, founding, judging, and granting himself annual awards. He used both his military and civilians as extras in his epic films—the longest, at 150 minutes, 1966’s Apsara, strains audience endurance as thoroughly as Syberberg’s Hitler. Sihanouk’s dedication to film is said to have bested his dedication to facing international crises. Cambodians do love their arts; it has been said that landgrabbing is prevalent in the country because it is so easy to distract the Khmer people with an enchanting textile.

Yet metaphors have functional application, too. At one point, Sihanouk ordered a slew of fake rifles to be carved from wood, props for sweeping military scenes. Then during the civil war that raged from 1979 to 1998, a small village near Phnom Penh was attacked by either the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese—no one’s ever said which when I’ve been told the story. The citizens dutifully took out the old wooden rifles and acted like an army, as they’d done in Sihanouk’s films. The intruders left, but the rifles are still around. Once I asked a few too many questions at a shady guest house and got one pulled on me; when it was decided I wasn’t a threat the thing was revealed as a fake. But a fake with function.


“A sad but nice bit of business in the name of art,” Syberberg says in his film. Then he asks, “How can one, unsympathetic to this subject, go on to make such a film? Shouldn’t I, shouldn’t we, live without this film, push aside our thoughts, think of something more important?” 

Since the Khmer Rouge regime fell (it fell about a year after Syberberg’s Hitler came out), similar questions have echoed throughout a Cambodia trying to rebuild. “Think of something more important,” functions as an unofficial national slogan, not too far off from the official national slogan, “Kingdom of Wonder.” As a result, Cambodian cinema runs a gamut from melodrama to romance to ghost story, a short gamut indeed, each genre upholding a different aspect of an untold history, standing in sometimes not only for collective memory but even for entertainment itself—movie theaters are prized most frequently for their air conditioning, not what’s on the screen. Engrained Buddhist philosophies and the prohibitive journalistic culture do not allow critics to express harsh opinions, so reviews occasionally include such phrases as, “if you have any idea what happened in this film, please contact me.” Attempts to tell the stories of elders, the stories of the lost, the stories of memorials, the unceasing stories of real tragedy that haunt every corner of this land, attempts to exorcise them, to get to the thing the metaphor is about and to stop creating more veils and screens: such efforts are denounced.

Years ago, a young student screened his short documentary on life under the Khmer Rouge. The only question from the audience came from his father, who asked: “Why spend so much time and money on something so bad?” His father meant the Pol Pot years, not that the film lacked merit. But the two may have been conflated in his mind: If you only ever communicate in metaphor, there is no need to distinguish it from the real.


Enemies of the People will certainly change Cambodian cinema—is already changing it. “Everything on film, our new chance,” runs the narration in the opening of Hitler: A Film From Germany. While no such self-importance can be found in Lemkin and Sambath’s documentary, Cambodian filmmakers speak of it with a similar reverence. “The story to end all stories,” a circus ringleader proclaims in Syberberg’s film. 

But it wasn’t, of course. Since Hitler: A Film from Germany came out in 1978, stories continue to emerge, new stories to end all stories. New mass killings. New evil. We are confronted with it constantly, we’ve become inured to it. Perhaps Syberberg’s attempt to get at the “true life” of those who participate in genocide is partially to blame for its continuation. In his vision, evil is confronted by the filmmaker, who is strong, aggressive, commanding. He controls his (“our”) Hitler’s dress, his appearance, even his retorts. He represents him with a puppet, which he fully controls. This is a poetic meeting between filmmaker and genocidal maniac,  a symbolic, important event in which all participants are fully present, at all times, Hitler and his victims, who are both representative of their actions and defensive of their intentions. But always the evil is confronted. In “true life”? We know it wasn’t.

While Syberberg and his actors were secreted away in a European studio in 1977 filming this “story to end all stories,” a new story was playing out in Southeast Asia. Enemies of the People documents a mass killing passed off by the puppet Hitler in Syberberg’s film as a “red victory,” words caught on tape even as bodies were filling rice paddies 5,600 miles away. 

The mode of documentation employed by Sambath is significant: no puppets, much shorter, compassionate and engaged. By the point in Enemies of the People when it reaches its emotional apex, the filmmaker and the viewers are both implicated and culpable: a quiet scene in which low-level cadres share horrific stories, not of the violence they were forced to commit, but of unnecessary cannibalism they participated in freely. Syberberg professes in voice-over in Hitler: A Film from Germany to be “unsympathetic to this subject,” but Sambath sits quietly among friends. Gimmickless and simple, Enemies of the People is the true “true life” of Cambodia, already fostering conversation between generations, prompting questions in the press about the tribunals, inspiring young filmmakers to tell stories unburdened by shams or fakes. What evil it vanquishes is worn first, softened with respect. Soon, films about the Khmer Rouge years will emerge, beleaguered with artistry, replete with new metaphors. Until then we have this bit of earnestness, the turning point, a decade-long story about millions of murders. To some, it is everything.

Image: Enemies of the People (d. Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, Cambodia, 2009)

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »