Cambodia and the Killing Fields

Yesterday I watched two films — the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, and the feature The Killing Fields (1984). I rented both DVDs from Netflix.

S21, and The Killing Fields

Two videos: S21, and The Killing Fields

Yeah, this was not fun, popcorn-munching movie time. But what happened — what often happens when I travel — was that I got exposed to things I knew very little about, while I was in Cambodia. Like going to Dachau while I was staying in Munich, going to the Khmer Rouge torture prison called S-21 (Tuol Sleng) and Choeung Ek while I was in Phnom Penh seemed … well … necessary.

The DVD of this documentary about S-21 is for sale in just about every video store in Cambodia. I tried to make sure to get an NTSC version so I could watch it back home in the United States, but even though the $2 DVD I bought said “NTSC” on the back cover, when I put it into my DVD player, I got a message that it was PAL format and would not play. Bummer. (Yeah, $2 wasted.) So I put it into my Netflix queue.

It’s a rather remarkable video, and as someone who watched a big stack of feature-length documentaries last year (part of doing my job), I can assure you it is unusual. If you are a fan of innovative documentary video, you owe it to yourself to watch this.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh (relocated to France in 1980) gathered together two of the 12 survivors of S-21 (out of 17,000 prisoners held there, only 12 ever emerged alive) and several prison guards, along with some other prison workers, and took them to the empty prison (formerly a high school in Phnom Penh). There, they talk. In eerily flat, monotone voices, the guards describe their deathly work, carried out when they were young teenagers or, at most, in their early 20s.

They walk up and down the corridors of S-21, playing out their former roles. They are as robotic as factory workers on an assembly line.

S-21, by macloo, on Flickr

As they sift through files, documents, and photographs (the Khmer Rouge were scrupulous about keeping records of each prisoner taken in, each interrogation, each execution), the former guards remember out loud. Yes, I interrogated this woman. She was 19 years old. Yes, I remember this family, with their five children. All were killed. The children were taken out first. The husband and wife were separated.

Throughout, one very articulate survivor of S-21, Vann Nath, asks questions. How could you do these things? How were you indoctrinated? Did you never think of these people as fellow human beings?

The answer that emerges chills the blood: They were enemies. There was no question that they were enemies. The authorities (Angkar) never made mistakes. If someone was arrested, then that one was an enemy. It was not for us to question. Our duty was to get their confessions. There must be a confession because Angkar never made a mistake, so each one of them was an enemy.

I have no conclusions to offer, but I did have a disturbing feeling when I was watching this video, and that was a connection to Abu Ghraib and all the secret prisons operated by the CIA.

As I listened to the former S-21 guards talking, I thought about the conditions under which a person works as a guard. The conditions of any prison — especially one where the prisoners are believed to be hiding valuable information. The more I heard from the guards, the more I thought that almost anyone might act the way they acted. The alternative for them was severe punishment or even death. So how many people will stand up, in that situation, and refuse to do what they are ordered to do?

I like to think I would rather die than torture a person. But in the real situation, would I be strong enough?

Torture, by macloo, on Flickr

A few hours later, I watched The Killing Fields, with Sam Waterston as New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, and Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian who worked as his interpreter and became his friend. I saw this movie when it came out, more than 20 years ago, and I’m quite sure that then I did not know exactly where Cambodia was on a map.

As a journalist and journalism educator, this movie has a special appeal for me. But it’s also quite disturbing, and this essay by British journalist Jon Swain sums up the troubling aspect:

The difference between us and the band of local journalists we hired to interpret the language, politics and culture was that they were seeing and reporting on their own country being destroyed. We, on the other hand, were reporting from the privileged position of visitors who could always bail out. For them, there could be nowhere else to go: they and their loved ones were trapped by the war and their survival was dependent on the outcome.

(Swain was in Cambodia with Pran and Schanberg. I found his memoir on the blog of Andy Brouwer.)

Mass grave, by macloo, on Flickr

Watching this movie now, I wonder how much of it I even understood in 1984. All the references to “Angkar” (the supreme authority of the Khmer Rouge) would have flown straight over my head. The passing notices of Buddhism would have been invisible to me then (e.g., Pran makes a “wai,” or praying-hands mudra, and then we see that the ruins he and Schanberg are walking through are, in fact, a destroyed Buddhist temple; Pran is bowing to a statue of the Buddha there). The beauty of the Cambodian people would have been indistinguishable, for me, from the features of any other Southeast Asian people; but yesterday, watching, I thought: The people really look Cambodian — how did they get all these Cambodians in a movie shot in the early 1980s, when Cambodia was still in chaos?

The movie was shot in Thailand and in Toronto; apparently Cambodians from a refugee camp near the Thai border participated.

Even the wart-like scene when Schanberg is in his apartment in New York, watching Richard Nixon on a Sony Betamax videotape (the VCR is almost as big as a steamer trunk), would have done little, back in 1984, to orient me — in my profound American ignorance about Southeast Asia — to the U.S.’s large contribution to the horror in Cambodia, which shares a border with what was then called South Vietnam.

1969: In an effort to destroy Communist supply routes and base camps in Cambodia, President Nixon gives the go-ahead to “Operation Breakfast.” The covert bombing of Cambodia, conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American public, will continue for fourteen months. (Source)

Two things struck a strong chord for me — apart from the compelling personality of Dith Pran, and his terrible experiences as a peasant under the heel of the Khmer Rouge: (1) the foreign journalists in Cambodia were so utterly unaware of what was really going on outside the capital, Phnom Penh; and (2) when the KR tanks rolled into Phnom Penh on the day that the war supposedly ended, even the Cambodians there thought the worst was over.

The scenes of young boys carrying automatic rifles have become too familiar to us since then — in Africa, in South America — and movies such as Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond remind us that the horrors of the Khmer Rouge continue, carried out by other armies and so-called governments, in other places.

What does this teach us? I’m not really sure.

I’d estimate that the footage in S-21 was shot in 2001 or 2002, because the video was entered in competitions held in 2003. Only six or seven years ago. Those men, those former guards, walk free in Cambodia. They are not even elderly. Out of a population of 7 million, as many as 2 million were killed, or died from starvation, from 1975 to 1979.

As I walked and bicycled and rode in tuk-tuks and boats and buses throughout Cambodia, I marveled often at the warmth and sweetness of the people. This is a tangible thing; many visitors comment on it. (You can see it, the Cambodian character, in Haing S. Ngor’s face and body language in the early scenes of The Killing Fields.) Yet all the people my age (and older) lived through those years of terror. All of them were either guards or survivors, torturers or victims. How can it be that they smile so brilliantly, touched my hand or arm so tenderly, when they carry that inside them?

I don’t know what I might finally understand, if I ever manage to understand this.

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One thought on “Cambodia and the Killing Fields

  1. Although you can buy the DVD in every shop in Phnom Penh and Killing Fields are a tourist attraction (operated by a foreign company, by the way), the Khmer Rouge period wasn’t part of the official curriculum for years. That’s why most young people don’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge.
    And Pol Pots hometown is planned to become a tourist attraction as well.

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