Sunday, 4 March 2012

Enemies Of The People


Filmmakers have long been obsessed by the Vietnam conflict. From Kubrick to Coppola and all stops in between, the war has been a cinema staple for years. Somehow, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia has failed to ignite Western interest to anywhere near the same extent. Remaining in the shadow of its neighbour, a genocide which saw the massacre of up to two million people in the aftermath of the Vietnam War has rarely been represented on screen.

Enemies Of The People aims to remedy that as Thet Sambath concludes ten years of work by bringing interviews and testimonies of Khmer Rouge killers to the cinema for the first time. It’s a deeply personal quest for Sambath, whose family were killed by the ‘Organisation’.

Central to the whole documentary is Nuon Chea, the party’s ideological leader, breaking a thirty year silence on camera ahead of his war crimes trial in front of the United Nations…


Thet Sambath is an admirable character. Calm and thoughtful, yet tenacious and determined, his perseverance in making this film is incredible. An early scene puts into context exactly how much he has sacrificed in his quest to shine a light on Cambodia’s shameful history: saying goodbye to his children and wife, he climbs into his car and heads into the countryside to record more of his meticulously catalogued interviews (later on his wife explains how much she misses him – but never complains). It’s typically low-key, and an early demonstration of the unassuming manner which Sambath has utilised to maximum advantage in gaining the trust of his subjects.

One of those whom Sambath courted was Nuon Chea – number two to the tyrannical Pol Pot at the helm of the Khmer Rouge. Together, they presided over a period of ethnic cleansing and extreme communism which their country is still recovering from. Chea is a chilling presence on screen: cold and emotionless. Having spent three years ingratiating himself, Sambath gains access which others can only aspire to – yet manages to remain non-judgemental.

Sambath’s impartiality is all the more impressive given his circumstances. Early in the documentary, he describes his father being stabbed and kicked to death as his brother watches on. It’s deeply moving, and all the more so given that the story is spoken over images of Chea surrounded by his smiling family. It’s a jarring and powerful juxtaposition – and a brilliant piece of editing.

Whilst Chea is unwavering in his belief that the Khmer Rouge’s aims were just and peaceful, a more moving journey takes place in the hearts and minds of Suon and Khoun, two men who killed on behalf of the regime. They are introduced by the banks of a river, and with tears in their eyes describe the surrounding ditches in which bodies were piled thirty or forty deep. It falls to a passing woman to create the film’s most arresting moment as she describes water “boiling” due to the rotting, bubbling flesh it contains. It’s such a striking idea that you can almost see it.

By and large, Sambath is a participatory observer in proceedings. Only once does he choreograph a scene – one in which Suon demonstrates how he murdered people. It’s an awkward encounter initially, but soon gives way to powerful unease as a plastic knife is run across a prone volunteer’s throat. At times, Suon’s hands ached due to the amount of killings he committed.

Sambath ensures that Suon and Khoun are portrayed in a sympathetic light, and it’s impossible not to feel for them as they relive horrifying memories from their past. Whilst refusing to act as an apologist on their behalf, Sambath gives them adequate space to demonstrate their regret – lingering shots of tear-filled eyes are as powerful as anything they say. Their attempts to help uncover fellow murderers and those who gave the orders are admirable – and the sense that they are actually enjoying exposing people is palpable.

Whilst the changes in those at the bottom of the pyramid are obvious, further up there is no such sense of self-awareness. Chea is incapable of self-criticism, and still firmly believes that his regime was justified in its actions. Always filmed centrally, his figure dominates the screen in a manner disproportionate to his frail frame. This also means that even the most minute facial expressions – a sneer, a sly smile – are writ large.

He’s a deeply unpleasant man, and Sambath has recorded plenty of material which proves it. His sympathies with Saddam Hussein during his televised hanging are testament to his mindset, and the euphemistic way in which he refers to killings as “problem solving” indicate a man at ease with his past actions. He’s also a shameless politician. During a meeting with Suon and Khoun, he disgracefully dodges their direct questions and manages to turn the conversation to Buddhism – clearly believing that in his next life he will escape censure for the atrocities he has committed in this one.

Enemies Of The People closes with a poignant scene which demonstrates exactly how appalling life was under the Khmer Rouge. A series of images of the notorious S21 prison, tortured bodies, starved corpses and shackled skeletons are presented in stark black-and-white. They are deeply affecting and truly horrifying – but would have been better placed at the beginning of the film. Occasionally the film lacks context, and a prior knowledge of Cambodia’s history is certainly beneficial in making sense of it – a little more exposition at the start would certainly help those who are less familiar with the subject matter.


Enemies Of The People is a deeply personal film which, despite its harrowing content, offers a real sense of redemption to those who are both victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge. More than just a labour of love for Thet Sambath, it offers a sense of closure and reconciliation – and serves as a powerful and unique historical document.

No comments:

Post a comment