The Holocaust is the genocide that most people know about. It's the one where people boldly yelled, "Never again!" Yet, sadly since, there have been numerous, similar, such atrocities. Several dramatic films have depicted or commented on them. Recent examples have been The Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda, and Waltz With Bashir.
Unless you were a world history or political science major in college, or unless you're over the age of 50, you're probably not going to be too knowledgeable of the genocide in Cambodia, which occurred in the wake of the Vietnam War. In 1984, the film The Killing Fields told the story of a New York City reporter who went to Cambodia to cover that very genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was basically a Communist organization that rose to power and took control of the land. The Khmer Rouge brutally killed anyone who opposed them and their killings evolved into an ethnic cleansing-type situation.
The 1984 Oscar-winning film was based on the real experiences of journalists at that time. Its premise was similar to that of 2007's stunning documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, which was about a U.S. Marine acting as a reporter who witnessed and covered the genocide in Sudan during the Darfur conflict. What's common in many of these films, dramatized or not, is the idea of a foreign, often American, reporter who comes as an outsider into a country and observes these genocides.
Enemies of the People is unique in that it is an observed documentary, not from an American or white perspective, but from someone who lived through the actual genocide, who suffered through it, and who now is confronting the perpetrators of that genocide. It's like Anne Frank's father making a documentary and scoring an interview with Adolf Hitler and asking him why.
The man at the center of this movie, the man who asks "Hitler" why, is Thet Sambath. Sambath is a reporter who works for the Phnom Penh Post, a newspaper in Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city in Cambodia. Sambath is clearly not a rich man or even a man with much money. Yet, he is personally financing this documentary, even to the extent that he forgoes food to pay for the project, which has been going on for years now.
Sambath doesn't mind that he has no food or that it's been going for so long. He feels that this movie is important and the reason it's so important is because he's interviewing men who were part of the Khmer Rouge, men who killed tons of people in the rice fields in and near Phnom Penh, the men who killed Sambath's family. Yes, Sambath has a very personal stake, a stake he doesn't readily reveal to these men. He instead spends days, even years befriending them in order to get them to talk on camera.
Oddly, Sambath gets these men to tell how and where they killed people in a genocide that saw millions murdered. Most of these people weren't simply shot or gassed like in the Holocaust. Most of these people were stabbed and had their throats slit like animals in a slaughterhouse. Sambath walks with the men who committed these crimes. He walks with them back to the rice fields where it happened. Sambath captures them on tape as well as everyday, even mundane shots of the fields. One in particular that's repeated is a shot of a slightly flooded section. That shot pitted against what these men did in them 30 years prior becomes an absolutely haunting visual.
One of the most heartbreaking moments is when Sambath then reveals how his own father got killed in those fields. It's striking how he gets the actual killers to physically demonstrate their methods for murder. Sambath spends a lot of time analyzing what these men say, but what becomes fascinating is what they don't say because their body language just when the subject is brought up or when Sambath asks certain questions is also quite compelling.
This is exemplified in Sambath's most crucial interview, his veritable exclusive with Nuon Chea. The Khmer Rouge was run by Pol Pot, a dictator comparable to Hitler, and Nuon Chea was his number two in command. In light of the fact that Pol Pot is dead, Nuon Chea was the next best get. Sambath met Chea and befriended him to a degree but for years couldn't get him to talk about the genocide. This is not surprising coming from a man who calls Saddam Hussein a "patriot."
Watching this movie, you see that Sambath isn't deterred and is in fact determined to continue until he does get Chea to talk. With other perpetrators, Sambath does create dialogue, and it's shocking to hear their words about what they did to people before putting them in the ground. My jaw dropped when I heard what they did with human gallbladders and yours will too.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.
Playing at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival
Friday, Nov. 12 at 12:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 14 at 2:45 p.m.