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“Until now, has anyone said this past action was wrong – that two million dead among the Khmer people was wrong? Has anyone begged forgiveness?”
One thing that bothers me about the Holocaust in Germany is when people use the phrase “never again”. It seems like such an empty phrase when, since 1944, it has happened again. Many times, in many countries. And perhaps never worse than in Cambodia in the late 1970s, when more than two million people lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the worst genocide since World War II.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a unique and powerful movie that seeks to explain the genocide, the torture, and the brutal actions of the Angkar (the party in control of Cambodia at the time). Rithy Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, brings several people together at one of the most infamous sites, the S21 Security Bureau, in the heart of Phnom Penh. There, 17,000 people were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979.
Three prisoners survived S21 and are alive today. Panh brings those three survivors back to the Security Bureau, where they endured some of the most horrific things men have ever done to other men. The building is now a genocide museum, but it clearly carries devastating emotional significance to these men. Joining them for this pilgrammage are some of those who were on the other side – the torturers themselves.
It isn’t really about clearing their conscience, or receiving forgiveness for their sins. These men are, in their own way, as broken as those they tortured. They try to repeat the mantra “I was just following orders”, but faced with those they brutalized, they seem to realize that those words are terribly empty. The idea behind this movie is simply to recreate the conditions and the terror that went on in the S21 Bureau. And it certainly succeeds.
One of the most chilling aspects of the movie is the ease with which the former torturers fall back into their routine of the time. One of them, who was all of 12 or 13 years old when he began “working” at S21, goes through the motions in a rote sort of way, checking imaginary handcuffs and locks, blindfolding prisoners, beating other prisoners, taking water away from others, and threatening the imaginary “enemy” as though he has never left this place.
I can’t help but feel for that particular guy, because he was really a child soldier, asked to do some horrendous things. The others explain their involvement by citing their families, or a fear of the Angkar, or the idea that if they didn’t kill the “enemies” of the state, then they would be branded as “enemies” themselves. It’s probably all true, but other phrases are more telling.
“I had power over the enemy…I never thought of his life.”
Female prisoners were raped and tortured with their kids in the room. When hospitals needed blood, four bags worth were taken out of prisoners until they collapsed and died. All the prisoners were forced to sign a declaration of the things they had done to make them prisoners, even though none of them ever appeared to know why they were there. They were tortured until they made something up, and then eventually executed for the crime they had invented.
I have been complaining for a while about the scope of certain documentaries, many on the same box set as this one. They are either too narrow and I don’t learn enough about the story surrounding a particular event, or they are too broad and I don’t care about any one person. And S21 doesn’t really tell the story of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, or any Cambodian history leading up to the event. They mention, briefly, the Vietnam war and the American bombing of their country, and that’s about it.
But S21 is a movie that works really well because of it’s narrow scope. Just these men, in this place, is all we really need to know. We know they were detained for no reason. We know these beatings and torture sessions took place for no reason. And we know that these actions were suffered by human beings and performed by human beings. Seeing them together, the tortured and their tormentors, is moving and devastating and S21 becomes transcendant.
Not just a documentary about a bunch of bad stuff that happened, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a dark, frightening look at human nature, and about the things ordinary men can do to other ordinary men. Panh, much like he does with paintings that crop up every now and then in the film, has created a masterpiece out of an outrage. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.