Enemies of the People - monday 2010-05-03 2235 last modified 2010-05-03 2237
Categories: Film
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Can a person make a subdued and unbiased documentary about the regime that took his family during a relatively recent and horrifying pogrom? Unexpectedly, yes - Thet Sambeth's Enemies of the People looks back at those responsible for the bloody years of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge rule where about 20% of the population were either intentionally murdered or left without resources to survive, and it does so without resorting to overt condemnation.

Sambeth's intentions were originally to provide a historical accounting for subsequent generations of Cambodians, but the depth of his research and footage can still teach those of us without direct ties to those years in that place. History writers paint this, as they often do, in such broad strokes that the narrative I was accustomed to going into this film was, "Pol Pot killed two million people." That's just too simple.

There is clearly no defense for this atrocity. Sambeth does not offer it, he just asks for an account. With screen time for one of each of the lowest level of militia directly responsible for ending lives, their commanders, their commanders' superiors, and the second highest ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge party, Sambeth questions them on their past and captures (mostly) their current, human feelings and fears - overwhelming regret, a spiritual burden of irredeemable karmic debt for their crimes, a need to confess. Moreover, over the course of the decade this footage was assembled, you see and hear Sambeth bond with and befriend some of his film's subjects.

They aren't monsters now despite the monstrosity of their past behavior, though one still gives pause. Sambeth's access to Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two of the Khmer Rouge, is priceless. In an unrelated move, after Sambeth's interviews with him were finished, the UN tribunal on the Khmer Rouge brought in Chea for crimes against humanity. He won't even talk to his own laywers, but he did for Sambeth. This is a striking record of modern times of the potency of ideological fervor blended with charisma. Charming and erudite in his ruling days, Chea's views on the past and his contributions to The Killing Fields are murky, regret mixed in with a still-burning hatred for those who undermined the perfection of the Khmer Rouge communist revolution, absolving the other film subjects of any spiritual responsibility as they were merely following orders, sorry for the loss of "innocent" life while still seemingly convinced that death for "infiltrators" was the only appropriate solution. And yet Sambeth himself is sad to see Chea arrested and flown into custody.

Ordinary people killed ordinary people. Once ideological purity stopped taking life seriously, hell was unleashed. As we see in the film, merely answering to an authority does not absolve guilt. One wishes would-be perpetrators could see this first.

Sambeth's co-director Rob Lemkin was present at its Los Angeles screening for the LAAPFF and mentioned that it was slated to show on PBS early next year. It goes into theatrical release in the US in September. He mentioned a second film that would describe the broader political context in which this first would fit. I'll be sure to watch that as well.

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