For most audiences, Roland Joffe's Oscar-winning "The Killing Fields" stands as the definitive portrait of the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia. As powerful as that drama is, though, it's still a glimpse at Pol Pot's bloody cleansing regime through Western eyes.
Premiering as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, "Enemies of the People" takes its place as a definitive take on the Killing Fields, looking at the atrocities through Cambodian eyes and with the benefit of three decades of historical distance.
"Enemies of the People" is directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath and was certainly the most powerful film I saw in my first day at the Festival.
[Full review of "Enemies of the People" after the break...]
Hollywood studios should be looking into snagging the rights to "Enemies of the People," because it's a chronicle of obsession as much as a chronicle of a global tragedy.
Co-director Thet Sambath is a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post. He has his regular job, as well as a wife and kids. But every weekend, Sambath has a gone off into the provinces of Cambodia on a personal mission. He's attempting to track actual citizens willing to admit to taking part in the slaughter. His primary target is Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two to Pol Pot's Brother Number One, the highest ranking surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge.
Sambath has been making these trips every weekend for a decade and it hasn't been a cheap proposition, costing him time with loved ones and often leaving his family strapped for money. His approach is methodical, luring the killers in with casual conversations and then pulling out the gruesome details from a position of comfort. With Nuon Chea, Sambath put in at least three years of cultivating a relationship before getting into issues of genocide.
But Sambath's goals go deeper than merely filming confessions for the sake of future generations. Many members of Sambath's family, including his father and brother, were victims of the Khmer Rouge. He wants to confront Nuon Chea with his family history before United Nations war crimes tribunals can get to him first.
If you're a Hollywood studio looking to narrative-ize this, you can go down the "Zodiac" path. Sambath is an obsessed journalist desperate to find somebody to blame as one murderer after another passes the buck, using the the ever popular "I was just following orders" excuse. He goes from the lowest soldiers all the way up to the top, looking for anybody who will say, "Yes, I gave the order to kill based on ethnicity and political ideology." Naturally, it's hard to get anything that candid.
That isn't to say that the killers aren't disturbingly candid in other respects. For some of them, this is a clear moment for expiation. This is a confession they've been waiting to make for 30 years and once Sambath gets past their initial hesitation, some of them are distressingly eager to go into the gory details. As Sambath asks a soldier to recreate his throat-cutting technique using a plastic knife, his own interest passes from journalistic to near-prurient, so you could take an "Apt Pupil" approach for the Hollywood narrative.
Although their shame is palpable -- storytelling stops, for example, when a group of young monks stroll by -- the men (and at least one woman) associated with these actions aren't nearly as somber as one might expect (hope for). Nobody justifies anything they did, but it's still possible for these people to smile while recounting the things they did, which probably has more to do with the state of relaxation Sambath has established.
In that respect, "Enemies of the People" is a "banality of evil" doc, rather than a "preponderance of evidence" doc. The directors hold back on the gory and gruesome Killing Fields imagery until almost the end, letting the first-hand recollections stand on their own. And when they finally show viewers the results of the actions of the interview subjects, the still photos are presented without voice-over commentary or emotion-pushing musical accompaniment.
You don't walk away from "Enemies of the People" with a clearer idea of how otherwise normal people do dreadful things, but you do see clearly how even 30 years isn't enough time for a national psyche (or an individual psyche) to recover.
I hope that "Enemies of the People" gets picked up for distribution of some sort, on HBO or perhaps as an accompaniment to some kind of future deluxe Blu-Ray edition of "The Killing Fields."