As American soldiers stand accused of sexually and otherwise abusing and violating Iraqi prisoners, the age-old quandary and question, one that’s asked about Hitler’s SS and death squads throughout history, is as pertinent as ever, “Why and how is it that some men transform into animals when they put on a uniform and are given a position of power?” In these times, a look back at the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is timely.
In 1975, after five years of civil war, Cambodia was taken over by the Khmer Rouge, a homegrown agrarian communist movement with an insanely absolutist approach to ideological purity. During their four-year reign of terror, almost 2 million Cambodians were killed, most of them “purged” for being enemies of the state, a nebulous status that could be incurred by having committed the bogus crime of being related to someone who may have been construed to have done something remotely seditious, or even for indulging in the non-productive activity of falling in love.
Killing Machine is a documentary by director Rithy Pahn which attempts to explain the how and — to a lesser extent — the why of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous ways. At the center of the film is Vann Nath, a painter who was one of 17,000 Cambodians sent to an interrogation and torture center in Phnom Penh. He says he owes his survival to the fact that a high personage at the center liked his paintings, kitschy portraits of party leaders he did at the officials’ bequest.
The approach of this documentary is similar to Claude Lanzmann’s holocaust film Shoah — instead of using archival footage, much of the film takes place in the now-abandoned interrogation center, which has been converted to a genocide museum. There, Nath and a handful of former inmates and guards gather together to go over their experiences, emphasizing the details of everyday life during those dark years. Aside from an acquaintance of Nath — a fellow survivor whose continuing grief is palpable — the painter is the only one at the grisly reunion who shows the proper emotion, which is anger. The guards remain stone-faced and when one finally says he feels ashamed of what he did, it seems lame.
My problem with this film is the same problem I had with Shoah (and this is a minority opinion since that film was almost universally praised) which is that the ongoing accretion of minutiae — the reading of victim’s names, the guards describing and acting out their daily routines — only occasionally manages to convey the horror of the situation and at times becomes tedious.
More effective is when Vann Nath asks the former guards how they could have done such things — how they could have acted like animals and commited so many cold-blooded murders of innocent men, women and children. “We were following orders,” they reply, “we were young and we were afraid too.”
It’s one of the film’s many depressing themes — that sometimes it’s too much to ask someone to transcend their situation, and that truly rebellious souls are few and far between.
In Khmer with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday Aug. 2, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].