By Nimisha Thakore
The opening line of Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath’s “Enemies of the People” is a chilling one: a declaration in Sambath’s shy voice that some say almost 2 million people died in his country’s Killing Fields.
So begins the hour-and-a-half quest to coax any sort of explanation out of Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two, second only to Brother Number One Pol Pot, in the Khmer Rouge, a brutal Communist party that reigned over Cambodia in the late 1970s.
But what is to viewers a 94-minute documentary was a decade-long project for the almost inhumanly patient Sambath. The quiet journalist’s family was massacred along with untold numbers of Cambodians under Khmer Rouge leadership. Yet with a reserve and unexpected kindness toward Chea that is hardly fathomable, Sambath regularly visited the now white-haired old man for three years, all the while keeping mum about his dead family so as not to appear accusatory.
He was looking for an answer, a missing piece of a haphazardly strewn puzzle that makes up the history of the Killing Fields.
Thirty years after the bloody murders, there is still no satisfactory explanation, but “Enemies of the People” comes the closest to unearthing a justification that appears to have never existed.
It is hard to imagine that the hunched and toothless Chea, balancing a grandchild on his knee or staring blankly at Sambath’s rudimentary camera, could have anything to do with the hundreds of thousands of human bodies that piled up in village fields between 1975 and 1979.
Sambath and co-producer and script writer Rob Lemkin achieved such a disbelief by cutting their film with long runs of silence, lingering close-ups on the creased, sun-browned faces of murderers, and repeated gritty shots of the fields themselves. Green sprouts there now, from water contaminated by buried bones.
The resulting calmness suggests that the theme of the film might be just that this is the way things are, with or without reason. These are the facts of life: these people have already died. All we can do is remember them.
Neither Chea nor any of the other former Khmer executors can pinpoint why so many people died, or even where the orders to kill and keep killing originated. They don’t shed tears or beg for forgiveness. But their faces appear weathered not just by the sun but by a burdened conscience. These are the faces of killers – but they are also the faces of remorse and of truth.
Near the close of the film, Sambath finally reveals to Chea that his father and brother were killed by the Khmer Rouge and his mother was forced to marry a soldier, later dying in childbirth.
Chea blinks. Then he apologizes.
“I’ve won the war, we beat the enemy, but then we were defeated,” he said, admitting for the first time that his beloved regime made a grave mistake.
Chea, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, is currently awaiting sentencing in 2011 by a United Nations-supported tribunal.
“Enemies of the People” is more than simply a recount of one of the bloodiest regimes of the twentieth century. It is an artfully and compassionately constructed testament to the distinctly human capacity to kill, to regret, to remember, and to forgive.
“Enemies of the People” opened in theaters Friday, Aug. 6. Watch the official trailer here.