There are two extremes in depicting the horrors of a genocide: through graphic, archival images, as used in varying degrees in Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) and the Alfred Hitchcock-supervised Memory of the Camps (1944, broadcast in 1985); and through the memories of survivors.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine largely stays away from any graphic stills and film footage, and relies more uniquely on the testimony of victims and perpetrators - the latter often young men and women indoctrinated by the evil Khmer Rouge to process doomed intellectuals and non-conformers in camps like S21 in Phnom Penh, before being carted off to the Killing Fields to have their throats cut and dumped beside other cadavers.
The feature-length documentary is remarkable for capturing the small steps of a grass-roots reconciliation project, while the Cambodian government, according to filmmaker Rithy Panh, still has powerful members who prefer to bury the past terrors, and ignore a generation forever traumatized by national slaughter that was organized and led by political extremists in search of an unattainable and untenable societal perfection.
How did the madness begin? How could youths become torturers, jailers, rapists, and executioners?
Panh initially focuses on two men - one a jailer, the other an artist whose style led him to be the only survivor among his colleagues that was permitted by the regime to paint - that sit among other survivors and oppressors, and go through the daily routines within the camp: how people were admitted, levels of interrogation, punishment, indoctrination, and execution.
On one side, we learn of life as a victim chained in a cell, fed occasionally, waiting to die; on the other, the absolute meaningless procedure of destroying the will and self-worth of an individual before death, and the sheer irony of recording in orderly script the entire interrogation and confession in a new era where writing, religion, and intellectual thought were forbidden. The similarities to the bureaucracy of the Nazi clerical machine is furthered when former victims sort through piles of dusty but impeccably transcribed confessions and meticulously compiled personnel files, and stop when faces, names, or odd memorial quirks are recognized, and elicit tragic stories of long-forgotten victims.
From the view of former jailers, we watch the men go through their daily motions in empty cells - barking orders, frisking prisoners, denying food, constantly peering through shutters, scolding, insulting, and repeating the process ad nauseum - and then watch them attempt to explain their lives in varying administrative levels of the madness.
More compelling is the artist, whose folk paintings capture the perspectives of both tormenters and victims, and whose constant presence in every discussion - without anger or revenge - helps the jailers and interrogators talk about a past they never wanted to revisit. (Right from the doc's opening, we have the family of a former jailer pressuring their son to go to the first meeting; it's a simple scene that illustrates the conflicts in banal homesteads, and shows how steps to reconcile with the past can happen through the pushing and shoving on the home front.)
There's also a short interview with director Panh, who moved to France and learned his craft as a filmmaker before returning to Cambodia and start documenting the trauma of his nation. In French (with English subtitles), he recounts how he approached former jailers, "and explained to them that we needed to get their versions of the events. I told them they had no right to turn us down. I also told them we wouldn't judge them or prosecute them, that we simply wanted to know what took place at S21 between '75 and '79," where 17,000 known prisoners were executed, and only 7 survived.
A series of detailed historical essays and notes accompany the DVD, which collectively place this remarkable film in its contemporary and modern context.
Western audiences are undoubtedly familiar with the 1984 docu-drama The Killing Fields, but stripped of kinetic editing, sound effects, and bloody imagery, the events that led to the extermination of 1/4 of Cambodia 's population are more terrifying when the mundane, daily events of a death camp are recalled by ordinary-looking participants, and a pair of aging, former prisoners.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan