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Enemies of the People

On a soupy Phnom Penh night, the Meta House was packed to the gills with people all curious about Brother Number Two.  The crowd, mostly expats, sat around chatting with friends, drinking their free draft Anchor beer, and waiting for the film to start.  As the lights dimmed, all noise ceased, all eyes glued to the screen, and Enemies of the People rolled out a hauntingly beautiful portrayal of the personalities behind the vicious Khmer Rouge years.

Thet Sambath, at the time a reporter at the Phnom Penh Post, spent nearly ten years traveling to the provinces to interview former Khmer Rouge soldiers, regional managers and eventually the top ideologue of the movement, Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two.  Partially motivated by the deaths of his father, mother and brother during the Khmer Rouge, Sambath shows painstaking patience and perseverance in uncovering the truth.  Sambath describes how he approached these people during the film, sometimes taking up to three years just to get close enough for them to confess.  “After I get close, I let them drink wine and enjoy themselves and then I start talking about the Khmer Rouge regime,” he explains to the camera.  Then he mimics the conversation: “‘I heard some people kill a lot of people in that place,’ and then that man he says, ‘Oh you want to know? I know…I also did it.’  Some people they answer to me like that and then I keep quiet.  The next week I went to see him… and then I say I know that for a long time about some people who kill, and I know that you killed the people too, but I dare not ask you so I’m sorry. So now I just dare to ask you because now we are confidential with each other.”

Gaining their trust, Sambath would eventually get former killers to open up on camera.  At one point a former soldier named Mr. Soun, one of the central characters in the movie, informs Sambath that he wants this documentary shown throughout Cambodia in the hopes that other former soldiers will come forward and say, “Yes, I did that too.”  Mr. Soun felt the power of unburdening himself of the secrets he had long buried. He knew he would suffer in his next life, a thought which constantly tormented him.  The viewer can see in his cloudy eyes, he was craving a way to seek forgiveness.

But the central character of Sambath’s research was Nuon Chea, a.k.a. Brother Number Two.  The journalist worked for three years with the former Khmer Rouge leader before Nuon Chea finally opened up to tell him the truth about the Khmer Rouge.  And in the end, after all was said, Nuon Chea told Thet Sambath that only three people know the full history of the Khmer Rouge.  Sambath was one of them.  The other two were Nuon Chea and Pol Pot.

Through a series of intimate interviews with the former leader, Nuon Chea reveals the reasoning behind the killings.  As Sambath reveals in the film, this is the first time a top Khmer Rouge leader admits to the killings during the Pol Pot regime.  Nuon Chea, currently on trial in Case 002 at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, still claims he is innocent of the crimes he has been charged with, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  Yet, despite this, Thet Sambath and his co-director Rob Lemkin have denied the court’s request to use the film as evidence against Nuon Chea.  This perplexed me.  Why, after all his family had been through, would Thet Sambath deny the court a crucial piece of evidence that would help convict the only living person most responsible for the Khmer Rouge?

With a shaky voice, I asked Sambath this very question during the Q&A session after Meta House screening.  He has been asked this question before, and his response this time was similar.  The project started before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, he explained.  He gained the trust of his sources by saying he was not an agent of the court, and that he was not collecting evidence against them.  He could not, as an honest journalist, betray those sources.  I have to respect that.  I disagree, but I have to respect him for that loyalty.  Thet Sambath also developed a strong relationship with Nuon Chea, and expressed sadness at his incarceration.  Perhaps he just misses their conversations.  But maybe he thinks if the film is used as evidence, he will betray a friend.  In either case, it looks like the court will use the film as evidence, according to this interview with Lemkin, since the film is now in the public domain.

The movie itself is a must-see for anyone who visits, lives in, or engages with Cambodia in any way.  Even more than “The Killing Fields,” this documentary strips down the Khmer Rouge ideology to its very core.  It shows the human side of these killers, and brings the viewer to the brink of feeling sorry for the characters; and that is the most disturbing part of it all.

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