Cambodian Filmmaker Finds Truth Beneath the Killing Fields

“At the beginning, I was just filming by myself,” said Thet Sambath, the Cambodian co-director of the documentary “Enemies of the People.” On April 17 at the Carpenter Center, the Mahindra Humanities Center hosted a film screening of “Enemies of the People,” followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker. The 2009 film follows Sambath’s 10-year search for confessions and explanations for the 1975-1979 Cambodian genocide that led to the massacre of nearly two million people during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Not only was Sambath motivated by a desire to reveal to the world the atrocities committed by the Cambodian government, but he was also fueled by the need for personal closure for the killings of his father, mother, and brother in the conflict. In making the film, Sambath gained the trust of former Khmer Rouge officials at all levels, working his way up to Nuon Chea, the right-hand man of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

Sambath’s search for answers started with two uneducated farmers who took part in the killings. “Most journalists have difficulty talking to them because they are foreigners and do not speak their language,” he said. “But for me, it is easy, because I am a countryman.” In the film, Khoun and Seang express regret and sorrow for their forced participation in the murder of innocent people. “I don’t know how many layers of hell I must go through before I can be reborn back into a human being,” Seang says.

In addition to capturing the raw emotions of guilt and torment, Sambath’s film also illustrates the lack of communication between local and national government. This disconnect led to confusion surrounding where the fatal orders initially came from. Khoun and Seang took their orders from a higher official, who obtained orders from senior officials at the government level. “Nothing I did was of my own orders,” Khoun and Seang’s boss says in the film. “I was told to investigate Vietnamese spies hiding within the community and implement the solution.” The confusion in who gave the initial order for the killings has led to denial by the government and no one to blame.

Sambath’s film has particular significance in the history of the Killing Fields because it is one of the only pieces of hard evidence that shows a high government official admit to the killings. “If we had shown mercy to these people [Vietnamese spies], the nation would have been lost,” Nuon Chea says, recorded on tape while sitting at the dinner table of his own home. “The country was in danger of being taken over by Vietnam, so Pol Pot ordered the killings out of fear that Vietnamese would infiltrate the Communist Party and government.” From these interviews with Nuon Chea, Sambath realizes that this overreaction stemmed from the Khmer Rouge’s inability to govern in a logical way.

At the discussion, Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, praised the film for its avoiding a clear-cut interpretation of events. “The importance of the documentary lies in its ability to very honestly and directly explore the consciousness of agents of destruction with a much finer understanding of ‘evil’ and ‘good,’” he said. “There is no clear line between ‘evil’ and ‘good’ here, only the destruction that was caused by a lack of inaction and fear.”

Though praised by the international community, Sambath’s film has been perceived as a threat by the Cambodian government and caused Sambath to fear for his life. “[Sambath’s] work is perceived as a threat for a number of reasons. For one, it is the nature of research that he is unfolding and making available to the public,” Gregory H. Stanton, research professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University, said during the panel discussion. “A Cambodian who refused to succumb to the culture of fear that is still a part of Cambodian society, he is telling a genuine history.” Though Sambath expresses a desire to stay in Cambodia and spend time with his family working the farmland, he has been forced to seek shelter in the United States. “The situation forces me to be here,” he said at the discussion. “Many former Khmer Rouge members who were in Pol Pot’s inner circle now run the current government. Secret agents for the government have tried to kill me multiple times but have failed because people like taxi drivers and farmers have helped to save me. I went hiding into the forest because the government is against me after I fought out the truth.”

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