Enemies of the People

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


In Rob Lemkin and Thet Sam Bath's documentary about the Khmer Rouge's murderous four-year grip on Cambodia, the extremist collective's ideologue Nuon Chea - or 'Brother Number Two', as Pol Pot's lieutenant was called - speaks disturbingly frankly about how he and his henchmen disposed of what he dubs as 'enemies of the people'. Two million of them, in fact - a catastrophe the country has yet to fully recover from.

Nuon Chea had, until then, never spoken about his role in the killings. He did so just as Khmer Rouge leaders were being charged for their actions in a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal. What's even more astounding is the back story. Most of Thet Sam Bath's closest relatives perished under the regime: his father and brother were killed while his mother died giving birth to a child fathered by a Khmer Rouge official she was forced to marry.

Enemies of the People could have been a showdown between persecutor and victim. But just as Nuon Chea wasn't elusive about his past after he received the filmmakers' promise the interviews would not be used against him in court - a promise they kept - Thet Sam Bath was not in this for revenge.

His questions are sharp in the manner of a brilliant, well-informed journalist. He wants Nuon Chea to admit his guilt, but he is also trying to understand his motivation.

The result is a nuanced chronicle of history and human nature. Nuon Chea and his former henchmen speak candidly about their crimes but they are also quick to point out that their actions were the consequences of a system they had no control over.

Beneath their guilt is the instinct for self preservation, of disclaiming responsibility by claiming they were pawns in a geo-political game.

Which they were, to an extent. The Khmer Rouge - whether in power or as a Thailand-based ousted force after the Vietnamese invaded the country in 1979 - was backed by China and the US.

Then again, Enemies of the People isn't about this. Instead, we see a humanist trying to come to terms with the bloodiest episode in his country's history. Thet Sam Bath spent years on the project before Lemkin came into the picture. This film is a remarkable achievement.

Enemies of the People, screens June 21, 8pm, June 26, 9.30pm, Broadway Cinematheque as part of the Refugee Film Festival