Thursday 20 January 2011
Enemy of the people
It was the same everywhere I went in Cambodia, people willing to tell of the past with only the slightest prompting. There was my driver in Phnom Penn, who pointed out one of the killing fields, bones showing on the surface, a place not visited by tourists, one of the many charnel houses in a country turned into a charnel house. In Siem Reap another driver, the son of a doctor, told me that throughout the time of the Khmer Rouge his father had to pretend to have been a baker. For virtually the first thing they did was kill all the doctors.
Last September I made reference to Enemies of the People (To be good was to be dead), a documentary made by Thet Sambath, a Cambodian journalist, in collaboration with Rob Lemkin, a British documentarian. Then I had only seen it in part; now I have seen it in whole, in a limited screening in this country. It’s a tremendous piece of work, one that he built up over a number of years, all at his own expense, in money and in emotional effort.
It’s also a work of great patience. In looking for answers to the question why, why so many deaths, why so much suffering, over a period of years he steadily gained the confidence of Noun Chea, known as Brother Number Two alongside Pol Pot, Brother Number One. Even the nomenclature is as sinister as the mirthless grins.
This a documentary which also serves as a personal odyssey; for Sambath lost his family in the Killing Fields, a fact he conceals from his interlocutor until the very end. Yet despite this there is not a trace of bitterness or accusation in the film, merely a sense of patient bewilderment.
Oddly enough the interviews with Soun and Khan, now elderly men, two of those who carried out the killings on Chea’s behalf – he is thought to have been personally responsible for as many as 14,000 deaths – are quite poignant. These are not SS or Gulag guards; no, they are simple peasant farmers. Soun, firm in his Buddhist convictions, said that it will be many lifetimes before he returns to human form, all on account of his crimes, the terrible burden he carries. It is terrible. On the film-makers urging he was persuaded to demonstrate how he killed, using a plastic knife on a nervous fellow villager. “I slit so many throats”, he said in the process, “that my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing in the neck.”
These killings were always carried out at night, by the light of flaming torches, while nearby stood the children of the victims, their mouths covered to stop them screaming. Both Soun and Khan recalled that they subsequently removed the gall bladders of the dead, drinking the bitter bile in the belief that this would protect their skins. A woman remembered the water-logged fields, bubbles rising as if boiling when the bodies decomposed. Another still refuses to drink the local water because of the bodies buried all those years ago.
Meanwhile the principle interview with Chea proceeds. At one point he meets Soun and Khan, saying that they are not to blame, for they had no intent, and that Democratic Kampuchea was a ‘clean regime’. The dead are still the enemies of the people, though one has to wonder who exactly ‘the people’ are if not the dead. But, as I said before, when Sambath finally reveals the fate of his family – he had hitherto pretended that his mother and father had died in the 1980s – Chea slips from monstrous abstraction to genuine human sympathy.
Brother Number Two is now in detention, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, crimes against the people. Enemies of the People is a compelling documentary, a small journey into the heart of darkness.