'Enemies of the People', Brilliant and Devastating, Premieres on PBS 12 July

by Cynthia Fuchs

12 July 2011

 

Structured as a series of memories and gaps, repressions and excavations, Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin’s Enemies of the People tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, from a distinctly, agonizingly personal perspective. Sambath begins by remembering his father’s murder. “They arrested him and took him to the rice field. They killed him by thrashing by knives,” Sambath says. “He did not die immediate. He very, very suffer. My brother, he watch.” Now a senior reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, Sambath has spent years seeking answers to the question that has shaped his life: “Why the killing happened.” His film includes interviews with several killers, now living un-special lives in villages, as well as Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two. The movie—premiering 12 July as part of PBS’ extraordinary POV series—is at once deft and harrowing. As interview subjects sift through memories, they sound variously true and delusional, fragmented and self-serving, working their way to confessions in roundabout ways. You can’t know whether this is a function of fading memories, confusion or deliberate obfuscation. “Frankly,” one says, laughing weakly, “Without the wine, we wouldn’t dare kill people.” At the same time, the film’s compositions insist on the layers of storytelling, showing multiple frames within frames, arranged in camera lenses and mirrors, doorways and monitors. The effect is complex, brilliant, and devastating.

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