Human history is littered with all manner of mass killing — from serial murders and genocides to crusades and wars of territorial incursion — and yet such evil is consistently rendered as beyond the pale in public accountings, as somehow aberrant and not a default state of the human condition that we are almost all possibly capable of if pushed to the limit, and faced with some of the same sorts of terrible circumstances.
Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s stirring, stomach-churning new documentary, Enemies of the People, reveals just how banal evil really is. The winner of a dozen top documentary festival awards, including the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival and the Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Festival, the film provides a from-the-bottom-up look at the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, and concludes, chillingly, that amorality can indeed not only exist but also apparently thrive in a vacuum.
Journalist Sambath, whose family was wiped out in the Killing Fields, serves as the movie’s anchor and guide, his friendly smile masking a world of swallowed pain. The end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War set the stage for lingering unrest in neighboring Cambodia, where they remained distrustful of Vietnamese influence, to boil over, with terrible consequences. Sambath’s father became one of the nearly two million people murdered by the Khmer Rouge when he refused to give them his buffalo and other personal property. Sambath’s mother was then forced to marry a Khmer Rouge militiaman, and subsequently died in childbirth in 1976; his eldest brother disappeared in 1977. Sambath himself escaped Cambodia at age 10, when the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979.
Fast forward to 1998, when Sambath, now a newspaperman in Phom Penh, got to know the children of some senior Khmer Rouge officials, and gradually earn their trust. For almost a decade he toiled on this passion project, leaving his own family and spending weekends on the road, working to gain the confidence of various
lower-level Khmer Rouge soldiers, now ordinary fathers and grandfathers, as well as the regime’s most senior surviving leader, Nuon Chea, the ranking number two officer under Pol Pot. Piecing together these interviews with narrated bits recounting some of his own familial history, Sambath and co-director Lemkin show how readily in the din and chaos of war — or, indeed, even just the presence of an emotionally charged us-versus-them scenario — ordinary people will do terrible things to their fellow countrymen.
This subject matter and the wrenching firsthand details that Sambath collects — ex-Khmer Rouge foot soldiers demonstrate in matter-of-fact fashion how they slit people’s throats, but one confesses that sometimes he had to alternate his grip and go for a straight stab of the neck because his arm became too tired from the repetitive motion — make for an engrossing if at times sickening experience. It’s a bit frustrating, then, that Sambath’s skill set as a filmmaker (and by extension Lemkin’s, since while he doesn’t appear on screen he shares in every other significant credit) doesn’t quite match his abundant reservoir of personal tolerance, and don’t extend to include a slightly more pointed and assertive investigatory style. Sambath’s hesitance to share his personal history with his most senior subject is understandable (and repeatedly explained within the film), but when video footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution by hanging surfaces and is shown to Nuon Chea, he has a curious reaction (“In spite of his arrest, [Saddam] showed he was a winner, and not a loser”) that, disappointingly, the filmmakers never follow up on.
It’s these sorts of small omissions in pressing that, far more important than just letting Nuon Chea off the hook, fail to fully illuminate the mindset that, in his words, would have stood by while governmental orders for the arrest and execution of specifically targeted political opponents were somehow translated into a systematic campaign of minority elimination in the eastern portion of the country. Enemies of the People toes the truth of human unpleasantness, getting closer to it than is comfortable for many general audiences (a Khmer Rouge boss, decades on, continues to refer to the ethnic cleansing as a “problem”) but doesn’t fully hold a mirror up to its most repugnant subject. Still, it’s a powerful and important work. For more information, click here. (International Film Circuit, R, 94 minutes)