- Thet Sambath, accomplishing what the U.N. often can't.
Documentaries about mass crimes — like the Holocaust or various genocides — are invariably told by the survivors. The perpetrators are either dead, imprisoned, in hiding, or unwilling to speak candidly with a filmmaker. That's what makes Enemies of the People, which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, so powerful: We hear about the Cambodian Genocide of the late 1970s, in which some 2 million people were killed, not from survivors but former members of the Khmer Rouge regime, including the second in command to Pol Pot, the dead dictator.
Enemies of the People, which screens tonight at the West End Cinema as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, centers around investigative journalist Thet Sambath, a reporter for the Phnom Penh Post and the film's co-director (with Rob Lemkin, a Briton). For the past 10 years, and on his own dime, Sambath has spent his weekends traveling to the countryside to videotape interviews with those responsible for the genocide — from foot soldiers to "Brother Number Two," Nuon Chea, whose confidence Sambath earned only after years of visits.
That Chea is still free during the filming of this documentary is surprising enough; that he eventually admits his crimes is astounding, in spite of Sambath's assurances that his project is for history's, not the U.N.'s, sake. The language Chea uses is nauseatingly familiar. He refers to "the solution," and to "solving the problem" of perceived traitors. (The regime tried to eliminate all perceived intellectuals, ethnic minorities, various religious devotees, and Vietnamese sympathizers.) The less powerful perpetrators interviewed on film, meanwhile, show how they slit dozens of throats at a time, or comment on the taste of human gallbladder, or describe the odd boiling sound made by the bloated, decomposing bodies in the Killing Fields.
Sambath has a story of his own to tell: His mother, father, and brother were all killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. And yet, he greets Chea and the others with a smile that isn't entirely disingenuous. Enemies of the People might be a horrifying glimpse at the worst of mankind, but Sambath proves that this world is home to some incredible people, too.