Twenty-six years after the release of Roland Joffe’s seminal film The Killing Fields, the story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge returns to the screen.
Enemies of the People (directed and produced by Thet Sambath and Rod Lemkin) opens with the shocking statement that almost 2 million died in the ‘killing fields’.
The film follows Sambath, a Cambodian journalist who has spent the past ten years doing his own personal investigation of why so many died. While the film does describe many pertinent historical facts, what we witness is more than history, and goes beyond journalism. What it portrays most movingly is Sambath’s emotional journey as he seeks answers to his own questions about a period of his and his country’s history.
Sambath suffered personally as a result of the massacres. Both his father and brother died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and his mother was forced to marry one of their number. However, he explicitly states that his mission is not about revenge. We believe him, such is the dignity and quiet respect that he commands.
In his quest for truth, Sambath has sought out some of those thought responsible for the killings and interviewed them. One such is Nuon Chea – Pol Pot’s second-in- command, often known as ‘Brother Number Two’. We witness Sambath’s numerous meetings with Nuon Chea, filming him, talking to him, eating at his table. The former Khmer Rouge leader is reticent and secretive, and yet, it appears that over the years he and Sambath have built a relationship, of sorts.
When Nuon Chea does engage, he speaks of the Khmer Rouge and its goal of ‘collective control’, asserting that the regime was ‘clear-sighted’ and ‘peaceful’. Khmer Rouge leaders have always denied their involvement in the massacre of millions of Cambodians, and one of the unresolved issues has been identifying those who actually gave the orders to kill.
Sambath eventually tells Nuon Chea his own personal history, to which the Khmer Rouge leader replies ‘how deeply sorry I am’. What is striking about Nuon Chea throughout, however, is his apparently complete lack of emotion. When he is arrested, to appear before a UN tribunal, Sambath clearly has mixed feelings, and admits to some sadness. His attitude is remarkable, if utterly incomprehensible. We are left to guess at the currents of emotion that pull below the surface. This is as it must be, however: any explanation would be inadequate.
The second encounter that defines the significance of the film is Sambath’s time spent with two killers involved in the massacre. He travels to North West Cambodia, where most of the killing occurred, to meet them, now living and farming amongst the relatives of those who died. The men claim to have no idea of how many they personally killed. They speak of their hands smelling of blood, which they are unable to wash off.
Unlike Nuon Chea’s reticence, one of the farmers feels that he needs to tell the truth. He wants the film to be seen, as proof, and also as a confession that would finally be available publicly for future generations. The story of the massacre has always been shrouded in silence amongst the Cambodians themselves.
Although the killers do use words such as ‘embarrassed’, ‘shame’, and ‘regret’, it is shocking to see them re-enact the methods they used to kill, and to hear of their hands cramping up from repeating the actions so many times. Towards the end of the film, in silence, we see original black and white footage of parts of the massacre. Needless to say, the reality we witness is truly harrowing and shocking. With this heightened understanding of the reality of the events, we are all the more awed by Sambath’s measured and composed bearing – he watches and hears these stories (and for him it is, of course, a deeply personal tale), and manages not to judge, but to listen and engage with extraordinary patience and dignity.
The final image is of Sambath, walking in the fields. He is planning a different life, farming, and spending time with his family, which he sacrificed in his quest for answers. For him, it is the end of his life as a journalist, as his story reaches some resolution. One senses that he has personally achieved what he set out so do. His attitude, graciousness and spirit are extraordinary throughout.
Despite the fact that this is a personal story, and Sambath indeed says that he made the film for himself, its impact extends beyond this, into something much more universal. Human suffering, and what man is capable of, extends beyond the tragedy of Cambodia, and thirty five years later, the story has as much resonance in society today as then. What happened in the ‘killing fields’, and why, is still not resolved. What is salutary, and tragic, is to consider what man is capable of doing to man, and that a universal truth from the tragedy of Cambodia remains relevant today: the enemies of the people are the people themselves.
Enemies of the People is in cinemas now.