EXORCISING PERSONAL HISTORIES: DOC ABOUT CAMBODIAN GENOCIDE

By ALI NADERZAD – July 6, 2010

On the indie production front International Film Circuit (Wendie Lidell’s distribution shop has introduced films by Sokurov, Ruiz and Hsiao-Hsien to American audiences in the past) will be screening a documentary called “Enemies of the people” in New York. It had a good run on the festival beat, earning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Festival.

“Enemies of the people” sheds light on the traumatic events of the Cambodian genocide, with special attention given, of course, to the actors—the Khmer Rouge—and what they did in the killing fields, which are to the Cambodians what Katyn Forest is to the Poles. Multiplied by 10. 200,000 people were executed by the Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Another 1.8 million died from starvation and disease. But as with any documentary on genocide, an added perspective is needed to properly take stock of what’s at hand. Superimposing personal histories over the historical narrative gives scale to human tragedies that are often incomprehensible. The amount of people killed is often too high and the statistics elude us, they’re too abstract.

In 1974, journalist Thet Sambath’s father became one of those two million people who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Sambath’s mother was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge militiaman and died in childbirth in 1976 while his eldest brother disappeared in 1977. Sambath himself escaped Cambodia when the regime fell in 1979.

Fast-forward to 1998: Sambath, now a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, has gotten to know the children of some senior Khmer Rouge cadres and gradually earned their trust. During the decade that followed he spent weekends visiting the home of the most senior surviving leader, Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two under Pol Pot).

Over time, Nuon Chea began to reveal details of the killings. Sambath also won the confidence of lower-level Khmer Rouge soldiers, now ordinary fathers and grandfathers, who demonstrated for him how they killed. It was the first time these murderers admitted what they had done. Sambath taped their interactions and, together with British documentarian Rob Lemkin, cut this documentary together.

Enemies of the people”will open in New York on Friday, July 30 at the Quad Cinema, to coincide with the Phnom Penh premiere scheduled for July 21 and the verdict in the first Killing Fields trial, expected July 26. Wider release to follow; check local listings for details.

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