Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered over 2.2 million people in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The genocide left many victims asking why so many people were killed during this time and whether justice would ever prevail.
Decades on from the killing fields and the deaths of nearly a quarter of the country’s population, journalist Thet Sambath sets out to archive and answer this question in the documentary Enemies of the People. In doing so, he plans to confront the Khmer Rouge’s second in command, Nuon Chea, the only man who really knows why the atrocities occurred.
The process to bring members of the Khmer Rouge to justice and record the truth has been slow and corrupt in Cambodia. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia were only recently established in 2003 to try leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Enemies of the People—a collaboration between the abovementioned Phnom Penh Post Journalist Thet Sambath and British director Rob Lemkin—is an incredibly personal and moving documentary that follows Sambath’s ten-year long search for the truth about what happened in the killing fields. The film is aimed at breaking down the silence of those who committed atrocities.
Enemies of the People … is an incredibly personal and moving documentary that follows Sambath’s ten-year long search for the truth …
Sambath, himself a victim of the genocide—his mother, father and brother died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge—travelled to the countryside weekend after weekend, gaining the trust of Nuon Chea and concealing the truth of his own past to gradually get information about why so many people died in the fields.
The film is confronting in its attempts to break the silence. Sambath’s quiet and respectful investigation and interviews with two low-level soldiers in the northeast of Cambodia is extraordinary in revealing the whereabouts of bodies and the methods used to kill.
The film is confronting in its attempts to break the silence.
One of the most powerful and visually arresting moments of the film features a perpetrator calmly pointing to where bodies were dumped in the fields and describing how they bubbled as they decomposed. The fields—now a site of beauty—are juxtaposed with the blood-soaked killing fields described by the soldiers.
The film reflects an attempt to reconcile a traumatised Cambodian past, throughout which the distinction between victims and perpetrators is constantly blurred. Members of the Khmer Rouge now live within all levels of society and the subject of genocide remains a sensitive issue in Cambodia.
Sambath’s interviews with Nuon Chea are all the more extraordinary for his reluctance to reveal his own family history while he listens to the stories of the man who ordered such injustice. Nuon Chea’s chilling confession that victims were “enemies of the people”—and his insistence that this was justified by the revolution—forms one of the film’s most climactic and fascinating scenes. The final confrontation between the two men is harrowing and quite poignant.
Nuon Chea’s chilling confession that victims were “enemies of the people” … forms one of the film’s most climactic and fascinating scenes.
While Nuon Chea, now aged 83, has finally been brought to justice and sentenced to stand trial at the UN-backed tribunal, Sambath and Lemkin’s film reflects the need for greater understanding about what happened in the killing fields. It is a poetic and powerful reminder of the injustice and horrors of a past that is yet to be fully reconciled.
Enemies of the People screened as part of HRAFF at ACMI on Tuesday 17 May, 7:00 pm.