Enemies of the People: The Khmer 440 ReviewAugust 20, 2011
Despite the recent verdict in the first of the Khmer Rouge trials and the efforts of the ECCC, there are still so many questions that remain unanswered from a period in history which ultimately led to the death of two million Cambodians. Between the years of 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge claimed lives through execution, starvation and forced labor. Thet Sambath lost his father, his mother and his brother during this time. His new documentary film, Enemies of the People, not only tells the powerful story of his personal quest to find those answers, but also serves as an incredibly important historical record for a piece of Cambodian history which might otherwise be forgotten.
For the past ten years, Sambath, a journalist for the Phnom Penh Post, has spent much of his free time interviewing and digging for information into the lives of the killers from this genocidal regime. With his unique, unassuming, non-accusatory approach, he was able to access and interview former Khmer Rouge soldiers and commanders who eventually spoke freely about these executions. These ex-soldiers went as far as demonstrating the standard method for slitting the throats of their victims and even commented on having to change their technique after getting soreness in the hand from so many executions. Even though Sambath’s family members were likely to have died through these very methods, Sambath was always able to keep his composure and show a tremendous amount of restraint as he extracted more and more information during these very tough interviews.
When Pol Pot died in 1998, the surviving victims of the Khmer Rouge regime lost the chance to see any form of justice delivered. They also lost the chance to gain any insight into the mind of this madman. Through Sambath’s efforts, he was able to contact and regularly converse with Pol Pot’s second in command, Nuon Chea, aka “Brother Number Two”.
For the first three years of conversations and meetings with Sambath, Nuon Chea was willing to speak about every aspect of his political career except for his time in the Democratic Kampuchea government. However, the more he spoke with Sambath, the more he opened up, until one day, Nuon Chea finally admitted his involvement and guilt in the murders of innocent people. This was a very impressive feat, because for years, Western journalists had been interviewing Nuon Chea and he had always denied any sort of involvement in the deaths of his fellow countrymen. Sambath was the only one able to extract the truth.
Throughout the film, Nuon Chea and the other interviewees had no idea that Sambath’s family had perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Just as Nuon Chea was about to be indicted by the ECCC tribunal, Sambath took what he thought might be his final opportunity to share this information and receive some kind of an honest reaction. Notwithstanding the fact that what followed came across as an insincere response from a clearly guilty man, Nuon Chea’s apology seemed to give Sambath some form of closure and a chance to move forward with his life.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this movie is that in a country where such evil has inexplicably grown, there also exists the extreme opposite – Sambath – a good natured, caring individual who was able to put aside his personal emotions, anger and feelings of revenge in his quest for the truth and answers for all of the other victims of this brutal regime.
Order Enemies of the People (Collector’s Edition) from Amazon.com