“Enemies Of the People“, which won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury prize at Sundance 2010, and a dozen other international Festival awards, still awaits permission for a national theatrical release from the Ministry Of Culture and Arts of Cambodia.
Cambodian reporter Thet Sambath and British documentarian Rob Lemkin collaborated on the exceptional “Enemies Of The People.”
Sambath, whose family were killed in the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge, spent a decade patiently wooing a friendship with Khmer Rouge second in command, Nuon Chea AKA “Brother Number Two.” Years into his freelance assignment, Thet Sambath met Brit filmmaker Rob Lemkin, who was on a research trip to Cambodia during the 2006 Khmer Rouge Trials. Dedicated Sambeth repeatedly visited Nuon Chea and other interviewees gaining their trust. These weekend trips to the countryside nearly destroyed his family life.
Smiling patiently as he listens to harrowing truths, Sambath never reveals that his family members were Kymer rouge victims, lest he lose the participant’s stories. “I think only the killers can tell us the truth, why they killed the people and who ordered them to kill,” explains his narration, which reveals a Buddhist compassion as well as a tenacious digging for the truth. Peasant soldiers were forced to kill or face execution themselves. An uneasy interviewee smiles at the camera as he demonstrates the throat cutting style he was taught and used on hundreds of bound victims.
No amount of archival footage can match the power of this astounding documentary. What began as a investigation, seeking the justice that revealing the truth can bring, becomes over time, a lesson in forgiveness as Sambeth finds himself oddly concerned for the ailing Nuon Chea, once he’s arrested to face War Crime trials.
Ten years of visits wears down Chea’s defenses. The now frail 83-year-old tyrant, known as the ideological leader of the genocidal regime, at first denies knowledge of the local level assassinations. Eventually he acknowledges that the rural mass murders were policy handed down from the top. Sambath reveals that all his family was killed and Nuon Chea apologizes. This is the unique time that a high level Kymer Rouge accepted responsibility for the extensive war crimes. (Pol Pot died in 1998.)
Interviews with victim’s relatives, peasants who point out where the bodies lay in the now tranquil countryside, and low-level participants in the army massacres add some additional color, but it is the final resolution with Chea that gives the film it’s dramatic force.
Durin 2009 the ECCC tried Comrade Duch, charged with the deaths of over 20,000 prisoners. He will serve an additional 19 years in prison for his ‘Crimes Against Humanity”. Nuon Chea (Brother Number 2) and three other senior Khmer leaders, charged with genocide, are awaiting trial.
Originally reviewed at SBFF, 2010. Opens August 26- Laemmle Music Hall.