Cambodia comes to terms with its past

One picture is worth ten thousand words, according to the old press saying. Certainly in today’s media saturated environment, a fine documentary has greater impact than the best historical narrative. And when that documentary exposes what has been deliberately concealed, it is all the more powerful.In July 2010 the first Khmer Rouge commander to face a UN-backed tribunal was sentenced to 35 years in prison for overseeing 14,000 deaths in the 1970s. Kaing Guek Eav, a 67-year-old former prison chief known as Duch, was convicted for his role in the communist “Killing Fields” regime blamed for 1.7 million deaths from 1975 to 1979.

The Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the 20th century’s most brutal regimes. Yet the Killing Fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Enemies of the People, an award-winning documentary directed by Thet Sambath, senior reporter with the Phnom Penh Post, and Rob Lemkin, founder and director of Old Street Films, breaks a 30-year silence to give testimony never before heard or seen.

Two members of Thet Sambath’s immediate family were murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s time in power in Cambodia. His father was killed when he objected to the government’s seizure of his property, while his mother was then forced into marriage with a Khmer Rouge militia. She died soon after following complications in childbirth. His older brother, who had witnessed the brutal murder of his father, was also later executed.

Enemies of the People contributes to the emerging field of memory studies, which explores political, social, and cultural aspects of public and collective memory. It includes countries still recovering from the trauma of dictatorship or genocide (however long ago), which are uncovering what took place in order to come to terms with the past. Cambodia is a case in point, where “repressive erasure of memory” and a culture of impunity have long prevented justice.

Writing in Slant Magazine,  Diego Costa comments, “Enemies of the People is an incredible, easily digested history lesson. Since the filmmaker implicates himself in the story, in history, with nuance and no vanity, the film reads much more essayistic than didactic… This is an extraordinary historical document, an archive of confessions with potential for closure, atonement, and belated punishment from one single man on a mission.”

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