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.

International Film Circuit
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.
Heng Sinith/AP
Noun Chea, a former Khmer Rouge leader and right hand man to Pol Pot, sits during a 2008 hearing at the UN-backed genocide tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While Mr. Nuon has refused to cooperate with the court, he is caught on film in the new documentary 'Enemies of the People' admitting to ordering the killings of thousands of Cambodians. The admission could be used against him at trial.
(Old Street Films)
Cambodian Journalist Thet Sambath, who lost his parents and brother in the Killing Fields, spent more than a decade conducting interviews for the documentary 'Enemies of the People,' which won the 2010 Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is now on the short list for an Oscar.

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."

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.”

The history of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent decades of civil war are often suppressed by survivors, in Lowell and in Cambodia, who’d rather not recall how up to 2 million people – a quarter of the population – died from starvation, disease, and execution under the Maoist regime.

Such repression comes with consequences, as Cambodian immigrant Phala Chea has seen while serving as Lowell Public Schools Specialist for Community Outreach. In her work, she says, she has found that Cambodian families who repress their past often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, violent conflicts, and drug addictions. Thirty percent of the students in Lowell Public Schools are Cambodian, she says, and many don’t know why their parents ever left Southeast Asia.

“By not sharing the history, the past, the suffering, the younger generation is going to suffer,” says Dr. Chea. She co-authored an official teachers’ manual for a new textbook devoted to the history of the Khmer Rouge. It entered Cambodian high schools in 2009, and also some classes of Lowell High School. “This is a great chance to talk, especially with the trial happening."

As much as the Khmer Rouge is decades-old history, it is also contemporary news. In July, the internationally funded Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia meted out their first verdict against former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav (better known as Duch).

While Duch admitted to his role in the regime, he was not a senior leader, and none of the four other detained cadres have cooperated with court investigators. Which makes “Enemies of the People” all the more important. After Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the next highest-ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge was Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea. He speaks to the camera in "Enemies of the People" and admits (for the first time ever) the regime ordered the killing of thousands of political opponents.

Highlighting the film’s importance, tribunal investigators requested the interview tapes from Mr. Thet and Mr. Lemkin. The filmmakers refused, on the grounds that they did not want to betray their sources. "We were not working as officers of the court," says Lemkin. A second film from them is in production.

For those unaware of the court's functioning, this film alone may be more important for informing and educating Cambodians about their country's history.

“Some people really watch the tribunal. For others, this is their first introduction,” says Niem Nay-Kret, who lived through the Khmer Rouge period and moved to Lowell in 1994. “For the younger generation, they’re learning why they’re even here in the US,” she says, pointing to the couple of hundred people – mostly young Cambodians – who turned out to see the film on opening night.

Cathy Schlund-Vials, the associate director for the Asian American Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, also attended the Lowell premier. She sees the film as another attempt by Cambodians to reconcile with their past amid the historical amnesia – both officially sanctioned and personally inflicted – that infests post-genocide Cambodia.

For filmmaker Thet, it was also a way of confronting Brother No. 2 Nuon with the murder of his own parents during the Khmer Rouge. "I would like to tell you how sorry I am," Nuon tells Thet days before he is arrested and brought into pretrial detention. And this in some measure seems exactly what the regime survivor wanted to hear.

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