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S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003)
"S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge" (original title)

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Ratings: 7.2/10 from 697 users   Metascore: 75/100
Reviews: 13 user | 27 critic | 12 from

Documentary of the S-21 genocide prison in Phnom Penh with interviews of prisoners and guards. On the search for reasons why this could have happened.



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Credited cast:
Khieu 'Poev' Ches ...
Himself - Guard
Yeay Cheu ...
Herself - Him Houy's Mother
Nhiem Ein ...
Himself - Photographer
Houy Him ...
Himself - Security deputy
Ta Him ...
Himself - Him Houy's Father
Nhieb Ho ...
Himself - Guard
Prakk Kahn ...
Himself - the Torturer
Peng Kry ...
Himself - Driver
Som Meth ...
Himself - Guard
Chum Mey ...
Himself - Survivor
Vann Nath ...
Himself - Survivor
Top Pheap ...
Himself - Interrogator & Typist
Tcheam Seur ...
Himself - Guard
Sours Thi ...
Himself - Head of Registers
Mak Thim ...
Himself - S21 Doctor


In 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge waged a campaign of genocide on Cambodia's population. 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives to famine and murder as the urban population was forced into the countryside to fulfill the Khmer Rouges' dream of an agrarian utopia. In S21, Panh brings two survivors back to the notorious Tuol Sleng prison (code-named "S21"), now a genocide museum where former Khmer Rouge are employed as guides. Painter Vann Nath confronts his former captors in the converted schoolhouse where he was tortured, though by chance he did not suffer the fate of most of the other 17,000 men, women and children who were taken there, their "crimes" meticulously documented to justify their execution. The ex-Khmer Rouge guards respond to Nath's provocations with excuses, chilling stoicism or apparent remorse as they recount the atrocities they committed at ages as young as 12 years old. To escape torture, the prisoners would confess to anything, and often denounce everyone they knew - ... Written by Sujit R. Varma

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Release Date:

11 February 2004 (France)  »

Also Known As:

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$7,302 (USA) (21 May 2004)


$21,678 (USA) (20 August 2004)

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User Reviews

Left me cold and didn't really broaden my understanding of said topics
3 April 2011 | by See all my reviews

When I saw this, I'd a decent understanding of the Khmer Rogue, not too much but not too little. And normally? I don't make such negative reviews but I was really frustrated as it had plenty of opportunities to have far more depth. This documentary could have been loads better but its construction has some fundamental flaws. There seems very little point in just assembling a group of guards and prisoners when it's evident human nature dictates that abusers are often in denial of everything they have done. Such an attempt is not just cruel but merciless, for it brings untold suffering to the victims who actually have to put up with the torment of seeing their abusers again. There was also no moderator with in-depth and relevant knowledge of said events, to intervene and to help bridge the communication between all the parties involved.

Nor was there a mental health specialist who might be able to comment on the circumstances and guide everyone to a point of understanding and even redemption. What results instead is sensationalism where the victims' suffering and the abusers' depictions are exploited for the sake of eliciting a response in the audience, by accident or intention. Yes, the torture was chilling but without further exploration, what did that really add to the documentary? Missing too were historians or even academics to add layers of rich history, facts, analysis and commentaries which would link the incidents depicted to the Khmer Rogue history and even open set after set of questions.

As mentioned by others, the film makes a fatal flaw of mentioning little about the Khmer Rogue or even the history of the S21 prison. I know some of the "S21 guards" were actually prisoners who were given the choice of "kill or be killed". Yet this issue is never really approached and there is no in-depth analysis of their mindsets, their motivations, trauma, etc. Nor is there any exploration of whether certain historical and even cultural aspects might have further eased the rise and acceptance of the Khmer Rogue or figures like Pol Pot or Duch. For example: did you know that anti-Semitism had existed in Germany since the medieval era, possibly because of the stoning of Jesus Christ or maybe other events?

In certain Asian cultures, authoritarian figures are accepted and sometimes even welcomed, regardless of any acts they're guilty of. Is this blind acceptance a 21st century phenomenon paralleled in other cultures or was that a sign of a decaying structure or had it existed in Cambodian culture for over 1000 years? And did that play any role to the acceptance of Duch as a leader of S21? Or did Duch hold his position simply because of his ability to instill terror and fear and not anything else? And there were many other questions in my mind too. Yet, unlike most documentaries I've watched, I didn't emerge with a broader understanding on at least some of the questions.

Instead, the viewers are left to assume or if not, take certain things at face value. Such an approach is fine in the realm of fiction but for non-fiction, it's never good to allow a viewer's thoughts, viewpoints, prejudices, etc. to influence his perceptions so that he might engage in guesswork. Anyone unfamiliar with the history pertaining to this subject would be in the dark and emerge with no better understanding. At the worst, someone might even emerge with partial denial of said events because of how they deduce and arrive at certain conclusions. Yes, I've seen this before and that happens whenever an approach towards such a sensitive topic isn't handled properly.

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