S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
review by Elias Savada, 11 June 2004

It's disheartening when the headline article in today's Washington Post examines the American abuses against those detained in Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Elsewhere in the front section there's an update on the techniques used by U.S. interrogators on the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Such ill-treatment of prisoners is a decades-old, if not a centuries-old, practice throughout the supposedly civilized world that straddles a moral dilemma that has been hidden, revealed, condemned, condoned, and often ignored.

The worst example of such torture against an innocent group was the destruction of six million Jews by Hitler and his minions during World War II. Since that war ended, one of the worst civilian massacre in Europe was the Bosnian Serb killings of thousands of Muslims. During the Cold War, the East German STASI destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of German citizens. Hava Kohav Beller's documentary The Burning Wall was the first film I recall in which incarcerated citizen and state operative are reunited years after the fact in an effort to make sense of the earlier madness.

In that film, this riveting segment was but one small aspect dealing with the “rebuilding” of post-WWII Germany. In a new film, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, former Cambodian captives and captors look toward each other, with heads bowed in excruciating shame or anger, over nearly all of its 105-minute length. It's fitting that such a horribly fascinating reconnection is unreeling at Washington's Avalon Theatre, which is also rebuilding on its past glory, where The Burning Wall was shown earlier this year.

S21 is a film by Rithy Panh, a noted, award-winning documentary filmmaker since the late 1980s, who was forced to work in the Khmer Rouge labor camps between the age of 11 and 15. In 1979 he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand and eventually settled in France, where he received his cinema degree. Like his other films, Panh uses the war in Cambodia as a launching ground to exorcise inner demons that still haunt him, and as a springboard to understanding the mindset and policy of organized elimination by the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea, or the Angkar as is it referred to throughout S21. This appears to be the first of his films commercially released in the United States (by indie-savvy First Run Features, which picked the film up prior to its New York Film Festival showing last fall).

The Cambodian atrocity that murdered 1.7 million Cambodians, with the ex-leaders only now facing changes before an international tribunal, is examined in S21, the code name used as for Tuol Sleng, an interrogation enclave (now a genocide museum) during the Communist rule of 1975-1979. Some 17,000 people were abducted, imprisoned, questioned, tortured, and killed under the “security bureau” superintendent and guards. Of those thousands, 3 people survived, with Panh bringing two of them face-to-face with 11 guards or other former Khmer Rouge personnel who attended to the dictatorial desires of the Angkar and the “needs” they believed the inmates deserved.

The straightforward documentary style reveals the layers of abuse (and the incredible wealth of painstakingly typewritten torture and medical records; large, heavy-wood-backed mug shots; and devastatingly revelatory photographs the obsessive prison authorities kept) that were delivered to the men, women, and children at the behest of Him Houy, deputy head of Santébal, the regime's internal security police, and Prâk Khân, a member of the interrogation group. Both now claim responsibility for their sins in front of survivors Van Nath, a painter whose talent curried favor with Duch, the prison's boss, and Chum Mey, now a public works department mechanic. As the film opens, a tearful Houy is shown with his parents, who tell how their son was a good boy taken away and indoctrinated in the evil, cultish ways of the communist rulers. The other guards (all were male) echo this discipline-intensive methodology, that as young boys they were brainwashed by the Angkar. If they did not obey, they would likely become victims themselves. Nath pushes these crushers of humanity to better explain the evil they visited on their innocent targets. The guards' collective conscience is troubled with the torture and murder they committed; Houy alone hopes for a cleansing away of the bad karma that has haunted him for 25 years.

Nath, whose artwork reflects the horrors he is forced to recall, consoles Chum Mey, who was imprisoned for two months before the fall of Phnom Penh, as they revisit the torture chamber of their past. “We survived. We are terribly lucky.” I wondered, sadly, that such luck must be accompanied by so many agonizing memories. The demons of S21 are brought to us with a determined director's hand. The handcuffs. The blindfolds. The harsh beatings and whippings. The psychological humiliation. The blood-taking, whereby inmates were basically bled to death; Mâk Thim, a doctor in the prison infirmary, remembers these poor souls' deaths, breathing like crickets, their eyes bulging. The entire insensitivity, which one guard, incredulously bares before the camera “We didn't do it for fun.” Hard, very hard, to fathom, when we learn there were three groups of guards -- mild, hot, and rabid -- with some undoubtedly getting a sadistic kick out of their evil endeavors. No, there is no fun in Rithy Panh's horror tale. Especially the guards' semi-cathartic recreations of some of their daily routines on imaginary prisoners. It is not a film -- which unflinchingly captures a still festering wound on humanity -- you are likely to forget.

Directed by:
Rithy Panh

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.







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