S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Reviewed by Liverbird
Director: Rithy Panh
Writing Credits: Rithy Panh
Langauge: Khmer, Vietnamese
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 101 min
I watched this documentary film last evening, thinking it would be an excellent way of winding down to prepare for another work week.
I was mistaken. Grossly mistaken. In fact, this film presents the S21 incidents in such a compelling manner, it makes Robert McNamara look like an angel.
Historical footage was kept to a bare minimum except for the start which gave a not-too-overbearing introduction to the incidents leading up to the Khmer Rouge's victory and subsequent beginnings of their instituting of Pol Pot's idea of a utopia. However, in a masterstroke, the propaganda songs of the Rouge were thrown in the documentary, which is almost devoid of any music or score, and creates a haunting atmospheric accompaniment as we were treated to accounts after accounts of how S21 was run.
After a brief introduction (I consider it a crash course on the recent Cambodian history), the film started with the scene of a baby being washed by his mother. Although it could denote how the Cambodians were eager for a rebirth or a fresh new lease of life after the devastation of their world and a desire to return to innocence, the rest of the film only served to present how the Khmer Rouge's victory and "liberation" of the Cambodians over their "imperialist" and "capitalist" masters was in essence a false dawn.
In one of the many pivotal moments of the film, we saw how the baby was handed to a man who cradled him. We now assume that he is the father of the child, but the next few moments, the audience would learn of how that man, named Houy, would be the main protagonist of the entire documentary, for he was one of those young teenagers who killed without flinching or any respect at all for life, while he was a prison guard at S21.
In essence, this man carrying his child, had no conscience at the height of the Rouge's power.
We saw how he was admonished by his mother and father. We were then treated to the look of resignation and despair of Houy's mother who spoke of how she raised him properly as a kid - treating the elders with respect, etc. He was urged by them to conduct a ceremony to appease the dead, i.e., the hundreds whom he killed at S21, and to remove all the bad karma.
Huoy's response? He said he had a headache.
It was telling how the director positioned the film by introducing Houy, as a father and a son, before subtly dropping the audience a vital piece of information on Houy as a cold-blooded killer of hundreds. This is before the two survivors of S21 came onto the scene.
Vann Nath survived the genocide of S21 only because he knew how to paint and his work was liked by one of the head honchos of the prison. He was only the second person introduced in the documentary and his account of how he was arrested and sent to S21 set completed the foundation from which the documentary would now develop into one man's mission to confront the guards, not so much for their atrocities, but to question the reasons behind their actions and their morals.
Ex-prison guards vs. a former inmate, who saw how his fellow prisoners were tortured, maimed, abused, raped and killed, one would have expected the two groups to come to blows.
However, nothing of that sort happened. In fact, Vann Nath was calm, determined and purposeful in trying to learn more about the intentions behind these men's actions. You could sense that revenge was not what Vann Nath was looking for but dogged attempts at steering the ex-guards' toward remorse and an admission of guilt.
The ex-guards pored through two decades old of accounts. They looked through photographs of the victims. They discussed around the table. They read the orders from the leaders. They dictated the instructions given on how they should extract information from the prisoners. They related accounts after accounts of how prison-guards-cum-interrogators would force the prisoners into falsifying their written statements to justify their route to death. They re-enacted how they would guard each cell, threaten the prisoners and treated the prisoners as though it happened only yesterday. They spoke, without any hint of remorse, at how efficiently they would execute whole families in stages - removing the children from their parents and send them to their deaths, removing the wives from the husbands before killing them, and then killing the men. They related how some of the prison-guards, teenagers at that time, would rape the women prisoners and blamed their "youthful" passions for their acts without blinking their eyes.
Even the prison guards were not spared.
It was truly a time of not only chaos and every man for himself, but a period where good turned into evil and evil became more evil still.
Every scene presented a whole new aspect to the atrocities committed by these men, who did not go through a single trial, much less punished for their actions. There was no narration. Just accounts after accounts from the ex-prison guards, interspersed with Vann Nath's questions to them to delve deeper into their conscience.
At the end of it, Nath's attempt was in vain. The documentary was not so much an account of what S21 was during the Rouge's regime. It was to present the haunting truth of how ideology, the desperate need to cling onto one's life and misplaced logic threw every shred of human conscience out of the window, so much so that every evil action became justified and good in the eyes and minds of those who practised them, with or without orders.
None of the ex-guards showed remorse over their actions. No apology was afforded. Instead, they defended themselves as "victims" of the evil regime, while prisoners and all who have perished were "secondary victims". As Nath probed further into their conscience, their excuses became more and more illogical and lame.
The best and most unforgettable scene was when Nath and another survivor discussed briefly at how the atrocities were only recognized:
(The following is my recollection of the scene and may not be exact)
Nath: "They recognized their acts...
Another survivor: "But there was no apology..."
Nath: "Yes. There was none. They said everything and admitted to everything, but has anyone apologized at all?"
AS: "No. This will not help the families to move on... How can they believe that the pain of these families could heal without apologizing?"
Nath: "This is the way it is. There will never be an apology."
Another scene was how Nath admonished the ex-guards by walking them through a philosophical discussion by defining the Khmer words for "destroy", which was used in many of their prison documents to describe the act, and the word "kill", which affords the victims far more respect.
The most poignant scene? The walls of a room in S21 filled with small 4" by 3" black-and-white photographs of prisoners from the floor to ceiling, as the camera slowly pans from left to the right of the room, before stopping to focus on a photo of a female prisoner and zoom in on her face.
Even without any grisly footage or re-enactment of the tortures and the rapes, listening to the accounts spouted by the ex-guards is akin to witnessing the acts of pure evil and hatred in the film "Irreversible" fifty times multiplied by a hundred.
This film is a chilling and potentially disturbing documentary, without any hint of pretentiousness or the director's over-enthusiasm in presenting the facts from his perspective.