January 09, 2011

Enemies of the People

We live our lives surrounded by the past. It envelops and confines us within patterns of behaviour. This functions at a personal and a political level. Thet Sambath's film, Enemies of the People, is a study of memory and the way that it has effected his life and the lives of others. Its an attempt to explain what happened in the 1970s in Cambodia, when Pol Pot seized power and millions were slaughtered. What Sambath does isn't to examine the details of Cambodian politics at that point: he does not approach the issue as a student of diplomacy or of political structures. What he does is approach the entire drama from a humanistic point of view. He looks at the individuals that performed the murders and asks them why they did what they did. Its important to realise after all that genocide cannot happen without perpetrators: within obedience is consent. Sambath's film takes the entire gamut of the perpetrators. He spent ten years making it. The ten years were well spent, he presents us with the killers themselves: the men and women in charge of the operation in the killing fields. He presents us also with Nuon Chea, Brother No 2, Pol Pot's deputy, who never sullied his hands with blood but who ordered the entire event.

Sambath's quest is given particular relevance by the fact that he himself is a victim. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. His brother vanished under their rule, probably killed too. His mother was forced to marry a Khmer cadre and died in child birth. Everything Sambath says about the Khmer regime is conditioned, we know from his narration, by these deaths. In that sense he represents the whole of Cambodia: roughly speaking a quarter of the population were murdered in those bloody years and therefore most Cambodians must like Sambath be directly effected through their relatives. The documentary becomes therefore not merely a medium in which the killers and the officials remember, it becomes a medium for Sambath to recover the meaning, the memory of the events which slaughtered his family. You get a hint of what this might mean when he discusses the members of his family who are now alive and remarks that his surviving sister and he can never speak: they can never speak because to speak reawakens the memories of the dead and the destroyed. The place of pain from which this documentary flows means that it is a particularly visceral act of memory: I challenge you to watch it and not to cry.

But there are two places of pain to remember these events from. The first is grief: Sambath's grief and his guilt. Guilt that the last words he spoke to his brother were those of disappointment about a fighting cock that his brother had forgotten to bring home: a reminder lest any were needed that even under totalitarianism people live normal lives and worry normal worries. The grief is more obvious. The other place of pain though is the pain of the perpetrator. At one point one of Sambath's interviewees, a devout Buddhist, speaks of the fact that in his belief system he will never come back as a human being. He tries to imagine what he might come back as but cannot imagine something bad enough as a punishment. Watching the faces of the perpetrators, you see both the impassivity of having seen too much and the pain of having done too much. They stutter, they deny what they did, their eyes flicker around the camera screen- never looking straight at us, knowing (possibly) that they never can. Sambath's impassive questions turn into a kind of torture: in a quiet tone he asks them what it felt like to kill, why they killed and how many, forcing them into the prison of the past.

The impassivity is important: although Sambath is deeply bound into these memories because he like us did not see the massacres, he like us is exiled from the direct memory of the massacre. So he can be our proxy. When the killers discuss drinking the gall bladders of their victims or when they show him how to slit a throat or where the bodies lie, he like us can feel shock. These are the kind of details that became normal for those who committed the crimes- but for us and for Sambath they are revelations of barbarism. You are not supposed to discuss whether gall bladders taste bitter or not: to discuss that isolates you from the rest of human kind. Murder like anything else can become a habit. Its crucial that Sambath is involved and yet not involved: that his business is not reawakening his own memories, but finding out what happened to those he loved. He like the audience has to relive the killings through the memories of those who committed them: he keeps an admirable objectivity in his reporting, asking for details and inspecting sites, but in his commentary following each interview, he gives us an emotional response that we can empathise with. The interviews with the perpetrators reveal the way that murder has cut them off from society: they have experiences, they have guilt that they can neither communicate nor expunge.

The perpetrators do not seek to justify what happened, save by arguing that they followed orders. They appear to be stunned by the events they have participated in. The exception here is Nuon Chea, Brother Number 2. Nuon Chea is the only participant who is certain about the justice of his memory of events. He is interviewed and sits looking into the camera, unflinchingly. His answers are measured and come without anguish. He knows what he knows and he knows that it is right. His view is that those who were murdered were Enemies of the People, Enemies who had to be slaughtered lest the party fail in its reforms of the country. Self righteously Chea remains in his certainty: seeking even to impart that to others, to excuse their sins. He feels no guilt and his words are a power of themselves, certainty is convincing. Nuon Chea is definitely a clever and thoughtful man and when he speaks you feel yourself for a moment being seduced. Sambath though mixes the interview with his interviews of the perpetrators on the ground, with his own discussion of the consequences of massacre: we are never allowed to divorce the snake from his trail of slime. For that reason Nuon Chea's rhetoric is undermined and turned against himself: we find the reason for the murders in his certainty and his charisma, but Sambath's filming means that we are not persuaded.

Memory is important. So many Cambodians in the seventies were killed and that memory will stay within that society for as long as anyone reading this blog is alive. Just as the atrocities of the twentieth century in Europe remain alive, facts within the politics of the twenty first century, so will the Khmer Rouge's work in Cambodia. Sambath's dispassionate eye and his camera allow us to navigate different memories: his own memory of his brother, mother and father and their grisly fates, the memories of those who performed the bloody work out on the killing fields and the memory of the one who ordered it. What it presents is a picture that is complicated and difficult: Sambath never says what he thinks about this and never expresses his anger. When you contrast that with the anger of Nuon Chea, willing to denounce those whose blood stains his hands, you can see a moral distinction which is as clear as can be.


James Higham said...

Self righteously Chea remains in his certainty ...

He has to, otherwise his mind would split.