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Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime caused the death of some 1.8 million people, representing one-quarter of the population of Cambodia. Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was in charge at M13, a Khmer Rouge-controlled prison, for four years before being appointed by the Angkar ("the Organisation", a faceless and omnipresent entity which reigned unopposed over the destiny of an entire people) to the S21 centre in Phnom Penh. As party secretary, he commanded from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge killing machine in which at least 12,280 people perished, according to the remaining archives. But how many others disappeared, "crushed and reduced to dust", with no trace of them ever being found? In 2009, Duch became the first leader of the Khmer Rouge organisation to be brought before an international criminal justice court. Rithy Panh records his unadorned words, without any trimmings, in the isolation of a face-to-face encounter. At the same time, he sets it into perspective with... Written by
Catherine Dussart Productions
I think this is the richest of Rithy Panh's three films on the Khmer Rouge that I've seen. It's the least experimental in style, we do not have the dramatic reunions and reenactments of "S21" nor the clay- figurine "performers" of "The Missing Picture", but it feels like the most challenging of the three films, the most emotionally and politically mature and complex. Perhaps this is due to the fact that its the only one of the three films to investigate in any meaningful way the ideology of the Khmer Rouge (KR), to let the KR speak for itself, in the form of one of its foremost interrogators and executioners, instead of being spoken to (S21) or spoken about with pain and loathing (Missing Picture).
I found the critical receptions to the film that I've read revealingly disappointing. While all want to praise the film as historically important, they inevitably describe Duch as a portrait of either a demonic figure or an investigation into ye olde "banality of evil". The critics want to tell themselves (and us) that they (or we) could never do anything like what Duch did in the context of the KR-government, or they want to say that the context was everything- it was the situation and the ideology that was evil- and Duch himself, and others in similar circumstances, are simply empty ciphers of their time and place.
I found Duch to be neither insipid nor incomprehensible as a person. An educated, sensitive man who evaluated the ideology of the KR- the most simplistic and brutal interpretation of Maoism combined with a romantic and non-Marxist ideal of rural life- and found in it a path to a better future for his country. That the realization of this ideology led Duch to commit what might be called "atrocities" does not negate his humanity, nor his capacity for self-reflection, any more than the bombings of the Muslim world reduce the Neo-Cons and Neo-Liberals to mere "monsters" or "brainwashed zombies". His remorse struck me as utterly sincere, albeit combined with an understandably caustic, even darkly bemused, attitude about humanity's capacity to "do good." At times, I felt like I was listening to an interview with Robespierre, a person who fought for modernity in a struggle so bloody that it could only have brought out all that is most primordially feral and gruesome in human nature.
And here we arrive at the central problem with Panh's work, and all western (Panh has lived and worked in France all his adult life) narratives of the KR. As gruesome as their reign was, the KR attempted to govern a country in the midst of a legitimately genocidal carpet- bombing campaign by the US. Indeed, Pol Pot's vision of an agrarian utopia was inspired by seeing forest-dwelling peasants who were relatively unscathed by the air assaults. That trying to govern a society under such attack inspired paranoia and brutality on the part of the leadership is far from incomprehensible.
Panh's hatred of the KR is also understandable. As detailed in "Missing Picture" he watched his family starve to death in a KR work-farm. But in that film he treats the lack of food as an act of sheer cruelty on the part of the government, rather than a simple fact of scarcity caused in no small part by the dropping bombs. But Panh is, like everyone, shaped by his experiences. He describes himself in "Missing Picture" before the KR came to power, sitting with his well-off family in movie palaces watching as "movie stars sang, as if only for me."
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