Enemies of the People Dir. Rob Lemkin & Thet Sambath

[International Film Circuit; 2010]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Killing Fields, Journey into Darkness, Armenia: The Betrayed

Enemies of the People begins unassumingly enough, with veteran Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath letting us know what he’s been up to for the past decade or so. Sambath (whose father was one of roughly two million innocent people murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-to-late 1970s) has spent most of the weekends of his adult life driving from his home in Phnom Penh to the rural provinces of Cambodia, trying to gain interviews with the uneducated farmers who made up the majority of the Khmer Rouge’s death squads. It is clear from his interviews with these aged men that Sambath believes this work to be of the utmost importance, seeing as the people with real personal knowledge of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge aren’t getting any younger.

This setup is pretty straightforward. Then, within minutes of the credits rolling, we realize that for several years Sambath has been steadily nurturing a friendship with Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two” in the Communist Party of Kampuchea — Pol Pot’s right-hand man during the party’s regime. This is where Enemies of the People turns straight-up awesome. It’s an exhilarating experience, watching Sambath patiently entreat Chea to talk about his life in politics and afterwards. The only way Sambath could gain access to Chea’s life was through omitting the part of his own history that involves his family, whose lives were destroyed as a result of Chea’s government. Here’s the rundown: Sambath’s father was murdered for expressing distress after his property was nationalized. Shortly thereafter, his mother was forced to marry a member of the Khmer Rouge and died in childbirth not too long afterward. Later, Sambath’s brother was killed for refusing to take part in the nightly ritualistic murders carried out by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s dissolution in 1979.

Suffice to say Sambath has plenty of reasons to be angry with Nuon Chea, but he explains to us how he sees his work as a historical one. He is more interested in creating the most accurate picture he can of that time period than in receiving closure vis-à-vis his ruined life. Particularly touching is his sincere desire to understand Mr. Chea as a human being and not a monster. In the end, his reaction to Chea’s story is one of pity rather than anger, remarking at the sadness he feels after realizing the full extent of the former murderer’s paranoia concerning Vietnam.

The two men who Sambath interviews most are Mr. Suon and Mr. Khoun, two uneducated farmers, both of whom killed a great deal of people during Pol Pot’s reign of terror. The grief and shame that washes over their faces when they revisit their brutal personal histories are palpable. The two men recount horrifying stories of the atrocities they committed, for instance how they would slit so many throats in a night that their arms would cramp. Both of them are certain the universe will punish them for what they’ve done, musing about which detestable being they will be reincarnated as, sure they will never again assume human form after their deaths in recompense for their crimes. The men, both of them appearing to be in their late 50s, are so thoroughly ashamed of their actions and yet, without Sambath’s sympathetic character, they most likely would never have admitted to what they’d done. Sambath explains that it took him on average three years of consistently meeting with and getting to know rural farmers before he could get them to open up and confess.

As a journalist and historian, Thet Sambath has created something truly singular and remarkable. Enemies of the People redefines the documentary account of atrocity by blending the editorial with the personal in such a radical way as to blur the line between the two. The final sequence of the film takes place in September of 2007, as Nuon Chea is escorted via helicopter to his trail for crimes against humanity — a trial which to this day has not taken place. Sambath, after watching the arrest and detention of Chea, feels his project to document the history of the Khmer Rouge’s violence and its effect upon his homeland is complete. “I have bought some land along the border,” he says, looking out upon a rice paddy. “I need to stop researching the past. I would like to spend more time with my family… and concentrate on farming the land.”

Most Read