S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

Caught this film at the Chicago International Film Festival last night (it’s going on a couple blocks down at the Centruy mall). “The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country’s population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. ” Filmmaker Rithy Panh (himself a survivor of S21 – taking up film with the purpose to document this story) took his crew and survivors and former guards of the S21 facility back to the schoolhouse that became a prison and then a death camp.

One scene that tore my heart out was when two survivors first come to the abandoned building – derelict and overgrown. The grief splayed across one man’s face as tears pour out of him and he tries to understand why in the world he survived when he lost his wife and children in this very same building. This is how I feel people must feel in Iraq – the stupefying helplessness of individuals caught up in history and political forces beyond their control. Another deeply affecting moment is how when the former guards numbly meet the former prisoners – recognizing faces from less than 30 years ago.

The constant conflict of survivors being told to just move on and stop bringing it up to this dedication to say ‘this happened here – and we were a part of it’ is so important. Also powerful is how all of the documents and files from S21 still exist and to seeing the prisoners page through their own files and read the accounts of their own torture and interrogation. In some scenes the former guards act out their night watch duties – narrating and yelling at the prisoners that aren’t there anymore in the rooms that yawn open and empty in the dusty wind.

A big piece missing from the film is a ’cause and effect’ summary of how it all happened. I guess part of me wants to see the slide into genocide. But perhaps focusing directly on the people it affected is even more powerful and makes it more universal – and the 17,000 deaths that came from this facility is small compared to other genocides. But when does it become too much to bear? The stone faced coolness with which the guards recount the pains they exacted on ‘the enemy’ is stunning and a reminder to me of how once you turn someone into ‘less than human’, the door is open for any kind of endless abuse.

I found this online too:

Cambodian Thida Mam was 15 years old at the time. She was relieved the war was over and excited about her country’s future. To many people her age, the Khmer Rouge symbolized an end to the corruption that had plagued her homeland for years. Perhaps the group could turn Cambodia into a more prosperous, democratic nation. Her hopes were quickly dashed when the Khmer Rouge ordered every man, woman and child to evacuate the capital at once. The goal was to turn Cambodia into a revolutionary powerhouse. As the saying went: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

On my reading list is A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide:

“The big shocker for me… is when I realised there’s all these answers to why we don’t do enough – imperfect information, no national interests, bureaucracy being tailored in that direction, no presidential leadership, no domestic political pressure, a lack of faith in American power after Vietnam, all these reasons – a full year before publication, getting a sense of what the last draft would be like I realised literally it would be like this: ‘Oh my God, we don’t do anything about genocide because we don’t want to’.”






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