Russian Market Movie Reviews: S21: The Khmer Killing Machine

Posted on by Dave Finch


I didn’t want to write this review. In fact the very act of simply watching this harrowing documentary by Rithy Panh required a sharp intake of breath and I silently cursed the editor for giving it to me as the opening credits rolled.

I really did not want to watch this movie. It”s not that I’m particularly sensitive to dark and gruelling subjects such as torture and mass murder – on the contrary I find such subjects compelling and often fascinating. Quite frankly, I’m bored. Bored of the obsession with Pol Pot that everyone: tourists, journalists and filmmakers demonstrate when showing any interest in Cambodia. Bored with the same trite clichés that seem to be a staple in any discourse about this country.

Lets see, Pol Pot, KR, genocide, landmines, trafficking, paedephilia, sad nation emerging from the darkness… Please place cliché here…….

Yet Rithy Panh holds a moral authority over everyone when it comes to discussing the Pol Pot regime in general and Toul Sleng detention center in particular. Unlike most of the so-called experts on the Pol Pot Regime, Rithy Panh is a survivor of that hellish regime who escaped to Thailand and then returned to make this film by finding a handful of survivors of that hellish place and reuniting them. Their chilling experiences has elevated them and giving the survivors a unique position to speak.

A position that humbles jaded cynics such as myself and demands we listen. As is well known, S 21 served as an interrogation center for the Khmer Rouge in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. Some 17000 people, mainly party members and cadre – as well as their families and anyone unfortunate enough to be named by the those under torture -were brutally tortured in this former high school which now operates as a museum.

Only a handful survived. There is no artifice in this documentary, no gimmicks or movie techniques to present the story in a more accessible way. Instead Panh offers simplicity itself. Two former inmates, the only survivors he could find, are taken back to Toul Sleng as are a number of former guards, and are then filmed talking together about their experiences. The prisoners, the artist Vann Nath ( who went on to document his terrible experiences in a historically important series of paintings) and Chum Mey are movingly courageous and stand out as the film”s only redemption.

Nath is calm and polite, persitantly questioning the guards as to how they could carry out the terrible things they did. How could they become less than human? Mey is visibly distraught, unable to control his tears as he is led back through the rooms of his hellish experience.

The guards on the other hand appear quite unbothered as they recount their former jobs. Their abuse of prisoners, the torture techniques, how they would yell threats and orders, even enthusiastically demonstrating beatings and torture for the camera. They seem puzzled by the former prisoners questions, in fact they seem quite incapable of understanding them let alone taking responsibility for their actions. Now that was the most terrifying aspect of the movie. Again and again they robotically repeat what has become a universal mantra for those who perform atrocities, ” we were only obeying orders,” or ” we were just doing our job.” I still wish I hadn’t watched this movie, hadn’t had to write this review, yet in the minimalist simplicity of Panh”s filmmaking, the deliberate lack of dramatization, the reliance purely and soley on the narrative of the victims and guards and the raw courage of the Vann Nath and Chum Mey, Rithy Panh has produced what I hope will become the the definitive (and final) documentary on this terrible place.

Dave Finch

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