The worst of human history has a way of bubbling under the surface, burying under the skin of collaborators, killers and leaders. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, responsible for approximately two million deaths, has remained in the country's national psyche in a uniquely chilling manner. The Cambodians who carried out Pol Pot’s systematic removal of intellectuals, political dissidents and anyone who seemed like a possible threat, now live in relative peace, often in close proximity to the people whose families they decimated by hand. “Enemies of the People,” an investigative documentary driven by Camdobian journalist Thet Sambath and co-director Rob Lemkin, attempts the extraordinary – Sambath wishes to elicit confessions from the mouths of former killers, in particular an elderly, partially toothless family man named Nuon Chea. Chea was once known as Brother Number Two – Pol Pot was Brother Number One.
Cambodia’s situation is unique in contrast to countries like Germany, which scrubbed itself of Nazi imagery and deemed it illegal to display or promote it, while they worked to rebuild their nation and reputation following World War II. As Nazi collaborators and key members of the party were judged and executed, some pervading sense of justice in the face of evil prevailed. The soldiers who may have pulled the trigger on thousands of innocents returned home to a country shamed by the rest of the world. However, the men who worked the Killing Fields in Cambodia returned home, likely live out their lives in silence lest someone like Sambath came along.
The reporter, who lost his father, mother, and brother during the purge years of 1975-1979, is consumed by a desire to unearth the reasons the killings took place. This means heading out to rural Cambodia to meet and get acquainted with several men (and one woman) who will eventually confess to participating in mass murder. The greatest strength of “Enemies of the People” lie in the film’s constant avoidance of focusing on victims – outside of a few people who tear up when recalling the loss of their loved ones, the almost supernaturally calm Sambath leads increasingly chilling interviews with the killers.
This is where the heart of the film lies and where your heart may break – while pity comes hard for old men confessing to feeling guilt for untold numbers that would shame a serial killer, the details unearthed and the picture they paint of innocent lives cut short brutally and for no apparent reason is intensely moving. One man illustrates how after his hand began to ache from slitting throats, he began to stab at them. He does so while cracking a smile, a strange coincidence since both Sambath and several interviewees smile oddly when discussing the darkest moments in their country's history. Perhaps the years have dulled the immensity of the Khmer Rouge’s massacres – Sambath’s wife and kids are certainly put off by his obsession with the past. Sambath himself regrets not spending time with his family, but this project is his calling and he must not stray from the path.
Rice fields are a frequent sight in “Enemies of the People,” the same fields where bodies decomposed over time. A woman bathes in one, but swears she does not drink the water. In one of the most astounding moments of the film, an elderly woman passes by Sambath while he interviews two killers. As she recalls the way stacks of bodies made the fields “boil” as it rained, the reaction on the faces of the same is unforgettable. There’s no drama largely writ anywhere in the film, just accursed memories that won’t let go and a man whose appeal for answers reached an end that is not entirely satisfying but sadly suiting.
It would be remiss not to mention Nuon Chea, since his interviews with Sambath form what is probably the most significant subplot of the film. As Sambath’s interviews lead him higher and higher to former heads of government, the same questions arise time and time again – “Why was the killing done? For what reason? Who gave the order?” One scene sees an unidentified woman, her face hidden in the darkness, laugh about the lack of a perpetrator. It seems everyone was following orders, and everyone could have been killed if they did not. Chea’s reaction when Sambath tells him about his family’s decimation is not unexpected – the man who spent most of the film defending the Khmer Rouge regime and at one point Saddam Hussein, apologizes as a politician would, without a hint of emotion on his hard-lined face. The banality of evil indeed. [B+]
"Enemies Of The People" hits DVD on Tuesday, February 28th.