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Khmer Rouge film spurs Cambodians worldwide to revisit buried history

Cambodian diaspora revisits the country's brutal Khmer Rouge history in 'Enemies of the People,' a new documentary competing for an Oscar.

By Staff writer / November 19, 2010

Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath (left) interviews Khmer Rouge Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea about the inner-workings of the ultra-Maoist regime, which caused the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s. In 2007, Mr. Chea was arrested and placed in pretrial detention.

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Lowell, Mass.

The Cambodian pond once bubbled as the bodies buried under the muck slowly decomposed, recalls an elderly Cambodian woman in the new documentary “Enemies of the People."

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Sitting at the pond’s edge in the film, Khoun and Suon, who each only go by one name, don’t reveal that this was one of many pits scattered around Cambodia where as Khmer Rouge cadres they executed, often with only a small knife, suspected subversives of the regime during the late 1970s.

Revisiting this horrific past is not meant to be an education in tragedy, co-director and Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath says in the film, but rather an exercise in unearthing and documenting a secret and often repressed past.

Based on reactions, it is also potentially helping a decades-overdue process of reconciliation and healing for Cambodians spread from Southeast Asia to Lowell, Mass., where the film premiered Nov. 12 and is screening through Thanksgiving. Winner of the 2010 Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “Enemies of the People" is now on the short list for an Oscar (trailer below).

While a United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal lumbers forward in Cambodia with mixed success in engaging with ordinary Cambodians, the highly acclaimed documentary is galvanizing diaspora worldwide to reexamine their country's history and to rethink how to bring reconciliation to the war-torn nation.

Maybe it will come with the tribunal. But maybe, as the film shows, a measure of reconciliation can also come through dialogue and confession.

“I don’t see it as a film. I see it as an important document,” says Prach Ly, a Cambodian rapper from Long Beach, Calif., who attended the Lowell premier and is promoting the film. “The film is showing and giving knowledge.”

The Cambodian government, which has an antagonistic relationship with the tribunal and only allowed the Khmer Rouge history to be taught in schools starting in 2009, has refused to grant the film a license – ostensibly because it lacks Khmer subtitles, but possibly because it implies that Khmer Rouge defectors who today hold government positions could be implicated.

Still, thousands of Cambodians living abroad have seen "Enemies of the People," which premiered to a sold-out theater here in Lowell, home to 20,000 Cambodians and the world’s second-largest diaspora community after Long Beach. It also screened this week at universities around New England, including Yale and MIT, and premiers Dec. 10 in London.

“I’ve always been interested in people who are demons, to see what they’re really like,” says British filmmaker Rob Lemkin, who made the BBC documentary “The Real Dr. Evil” about North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. “Pol Pot was not accessible, but this isn’t far off.”

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