If I compare my work to the battlefield, not so hard.
Thet Sambath begins his story over images of peace and beauty, of rice paddies and trees and sunlight. He remembers 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.” Sambath was just a boy, his father a farmer, a “country person,” reportedly killed because he would not give up a cow to the Khmer Rouge. 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 efforts are assembled in the astonishing documentary Enemies of the People, which he co-directed with Ron Lemkin. Combining Sambath’s self-reflections and his interviews some of the killers, gently probing their memories, the film is focused through his evolving relationship with one subject in particular, Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two. “I wasn’t the right man to lead the party,” he says now, by way of explaining how he appointed Pol Pot Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in 1962.
The film considers the tragic, horrific results of that appointment—and the still unclear nature of the leaders’ alliance and decision-making process. Sambath spends years talking to Nuon Chea, visiting his home in Pailin, sharing meals and recording him. “I tell him this film is not for journalism, it is for history,” Sambath narrates. He doesn’t tell what happened to his own family (after his father’s death, his mother was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier, then died in childbirth), until Nuon Chea leaves for Phnom Penh in September 2007, where he continues to await trial. To this day, Nuon Chea has protested his innocence.
Sambath says repeatedly that he wants to gain Nuon Chea’s trust, so that he will reveal his part in the Killing Fields. As Sambath contemplates his process, on his questions and his hopes to find “the truth,” the film makes such complications visible in multiple frames, both his interviews and self-reflections presented on laptop screens, editing monitors, and video camera displays. He replays interviews, rehears stories, seeking answers, the replication suggesting how hard it is to decipher accounts, sort out motives, and accept what people have done.
Maybe “accept” is not the right word. The very title of the film, Enemies of the People, breaks multiple ways. Nuon Chea uses the phrase to describe victims of the regime, people assumed to be in league with the dreaded Vietnamese, who became problems that needed to be “solved.” After the Americans bombed Cambodia and Laos and then fled Saigon (black and white newsreel footage alludes to the standard “history,” along with choice voiceover by Richard Nixon: “This is not an invasion of Cambodia”), Pol Pot endeavored to purge the countryside of opponents in order to achieve “revolutionary ideals.” As Nuon Chea speaks to Sambath’s camera, another camera observes their exchange. Nothing either man says is precisely true, but both proceed toward truth, or at least an understanding of one another.
Sambath’s performance is as fascinating as any of his subjects. Making his way across northwestern Cambodia, “the area where most killing happened,” he looks ahead. The camera pans beautiful scenes at dusk, trees and rice paddies, as well as land that still looks desolate, dusty and barren. During an interview with two killers, Khoun and Suon, a woman approaches. “Don’t film me,” she instructs the camera looking up at her silhouette. She remembers losing her husband, and the “boiling” caused when “decomposing flesh made bubbles.” “In 1979,” she says, “I was the first to return: there were so many bodies.”
As she speaks, the camera pans occasionally to Khoun and Suon, their faces lined and darkened by years of labor in the sun. They point to a tree or in another direction, down a road that now covers over a ditch, sites where they killed people. They appear repeatedly in the film, sometimes traveling with Sambath, for instance, to meet with Sister Em, who once gave them killing orders. They share regrets, and describe their feelings now: “I go back to the village where I killed people,” says Suon, his eyes moist. “I feel terrible, my mind, my soul, my body is spinning inside. All the things I did are flashing through my mind.” Still, neither man can detail why he committed atrocities. “The children saw their fathers smashed into the ditch,” recalls Khoun. “They cried out, ‘Please don’t hit my father, he hasn’t done anything.’ Then we took the kids and we killed them too.”
As cold as such memories can sound, sometimes the killers’ stories don’t quite coincide: they don’t acknowledge numbers of victims, or only work 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 at one point, laughing weakly, “Without the wine, we wouldn’t dare kill people”). Enemies of the People doesn’t pretend to deliver a final or even a stable truth, a set of indisputable facts. Instead, it shows the truth of the process, efforts to be honest, to confront horrors, to remember and to forgive.
That process includes Samabath’s own tangle of emotions, the years he spends on the road, away from his wife and two children (his daughter smiles brightly for the camera, while his son, slightly older, lingers in the background, his face unreadable). Sambath’s wife scrubs clothes in a tub while he shaves, the camera peeking up at his mirror than cutting back to her in the next room. Again, multiple frames insinuate tenuous emotional links, efforts to communicate, missed connections. She laments his absence, appreciates his dedication. “I just think about people making thousands in offices and he’s out in the forest,” she says. “Sometimes I’m angry in my own head, but I never tell him. I don’t argue with him. I just wonder why he’s so different from other people.” She smiles, slightly. “He may not even notice I’m angry.”
Sambath seeks an end to his quest. During an early interview with Khoun and Suon, he asks from off-screen why they’ve agreed to come with him to a place where bodies are buried. “Because you asked me to prove it,” Khoun says. “I want to tell the truth exactly as it happened.” Even as he speaks, you see this is impossible. Even as the film records confessions, including Nuon Chea’s, the monstrosity of their actions renders words ineffective, ever incomplete. Sambath notes during one session with Nuon Chea that, “This is the first time a Khmer Rouge leader has admitted killing.” The video frame remains steady (marked as such) on the old man’s face unnervingly serene face, as he explains, “We would investigate someone gradually, until we knew his full background. Then we would solve him.”
The euphemism, like the violence it doesn’t quite describe, is utterly chilling. The moment passes, the scene cuts to Sambath, listening and recording.