Investigative journalist Thet Sambath is a reporter with the Phnom Penh Post and over 10 years he went about interviewing victims and soldiers in search of why Pol Pot and his generals did what they did. After all, there is a rich collection of literature telling the story from the point of view of the victims, but the story from the Khmer Rouge point of view was greyed-out, even during the time of their reign of terror in the 1970s. It took more than a year before Pol Pot even revealed himself to the public – preferring to rule by secrecy until 1977.
Sambath is an amazing journalist who digs into the story in a characteristically Cambodian way: preferring not to be confrontational but to win the friendship and trust of those he interviews. I found his treatment of two soldiers, youngsters at the time they carried guns for the Khmer Rouge, particularly moving. At first the soldiers say they weren’t involved and cannot remember the details, but gradually the journalist takes them to the point where they realise that confessing what they did – one of the two men recalls throwing babies in the air and bayoneting them with the sword on the end of his rifle – is the only way to release themselves from the nightmares they have nursed for decades. The men weep with horror and shame at what they did. “What will I return as?” one asks rhetorically, recounting the rules of Buddhism.
Following a trail that emerges with each time he asks: “who gave your the orders? Why did so many people die in the killing fields?” Sambath eventually finds himself at the doorstep of former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, Pol Pots’s right hand man.
Chea insists that the regime had to get rid of “enemies of the people” but he cannot adequately address the core fact: that those in power were simply executing everyday Cambodians. Who, if not these leaders, were the real enemies of the people?
Nuon Chea is a arrogantly proud man, deluded perhaps, but through the lens of Sambath’s camerawork still human. Not a monster, but a deeply flawed man who, ultimately, is arrested to face trial.
This is a stunning movie, and has won multiple prestigious awards since being released in 2011. One hurdle, it has had to overcome, is that the Cambodian Government decreed it was too sensitive to release in Cambodia. The producers were working last year to ensure that at least through DVD release it might be viewed by Cambodians themselves.
Watch the trailer – click here.
More on Khmer film click here.