The movie was born of a fateful accident, director Rithy Panh told me over coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last year. That film is S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Panh's harrowing documentary about the ultra-Maoist movement's main detention center, a Phnom Penh high school that was transformed into an interrogation, torture, and death camp, code-named S-21. Now making its way across the United States, S21sheds a harsh light on some of the issues raised on a smaller scale at Abu Ghraib -- about the documentation of prisoners' mistreatment, and on environments where the dehumanization of detainees has become routine.
During the nearly four years the Khmer Rouge had control over Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979, nearly 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, overwork, disease, or were executed. About 14,000 people were sent to S-21 or Tuol Sleng; only seven survived. Tuol Sleng is now a museum featuring thousands of pictures of the former prisoners (taken by their meticulous captors for record-keeping purposes) and a number of paintings by artist and survivor Vann Nath depicting the horrors of torture and death at the center.
They were never supposed to meet, says Panh, drawing deeply on a cigarette, the dimples on his affable face disappearing. The painter was not supposed to come to Tuol Sleng that day. Vann had been working with the director on Bophana, another documentary set in Tuol Sleng, but Panh had carefully told the painter that he could go home. Vann showed up, though, to pick up some paints he had left behind -- and encountered Panh's other subject, a former prison guard. The painter had an unexpected reaction. After a long pause, he had put his arm around his former tormentor. As the two first appear in Bophana, they look like old friends.
It was this encounter that compelled Panh to make S21, and to draw on radical techniques to craft the film. Instead of relying on the talking heads and stock footage that form the bulk of historical documentaries, Panh asked former guards and two survivors of Tuol Sleng to return to the prison and “re-create” their experiences there. The result is riveting and often deeply shocking, part archaeology, part documentary -- a truth-and-reconciliation process done through film.
“[Tuol Sleng] was the machine of Angkar,” as the movement was known, says Panh. “To destroy not only people but idea and memory. But they could not destroy people completely. There are traces of memory, and I wanted to reconstitute those stories.”
Those stories -- of the survivors, the guards, the dead -- unfold with devastating power, due in large part to Panh's unusual techniques. Vann Nath talks about being brought to Tuol Sleng, his fear and confusion, while he paints the very same scene he is describing, brushstrokes lingering on the blindfolds placed around the prisoners' heads. The guards discuss their interrogation methods, read off their political biographies, and even retrace their journeys to the killing fields of Chhoeung. Ek, where they clubbed and slit the throats of nearly 9,000 prisoners and dumped their bodies in pits.
Some of the film's most shocking scenes come when one man (younger than the others, so he must have been barely more than a child when he worked as a Tuol Sleng guard) pantomimes his interactions with the prisoners. Nearly silent for much of the film, the man is suddenly transformed into a towering, terrifying figure -- shouting, darting into the empty cells, rattling prisoners' chains, tightening the locks. There's a chilling precision to his movements, even after more than 20 years.
“Sleep without moving, you scum!” he screams into a barred window. “What are you squirming for? Watch out, or you'll get the club!”
Panh documents the many horrors of life in Tuol Sleng: the bleeding of for transfusion supplies, the rapes of women prisoners, the torture sessions that resulted in each prisoner's “confession.” But he also captures prisoners' acts of defiance. They murdered guards, attempted escape. They also committed suicide, which caused no end of anger among the prison's guards.
“Suicide was an act of resistance,” Panh tells me.
The filmmaker's own father committed suicide in a Khmer Rouge camp, refusing to eat until he literally starved himself to death in protest. Panh vividly the Khmer Rouge years. The young revolutionaries arrived in Phnom Penh a day after the filmmaker's 11th or 12th birthday, each with a “hard, closed face, like a shut remembers door.”
Panh spent the next four years in a labor camp for young children, finally fleeing to France after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Panh also lost a relative to Tuol Sleng, an uncle who was attending college in Oklahoma. Called back by the Pol Pot regime to “help rebuild the country,” Panh's uncle was taken straight from the airport to the detention center. The filmmaker has read his relative's file, knows that his uncle never revealed that he had a wife and children even under extreme torture, which ensured the family's continued safety. But Panh says he chooses not to fixate on his uncle's suffering, recalling instead his relative in times of peace.
“He made beautiful omelettes,” says the documentarian. “I never let them break what was good for me before the war.”
Just as those memories enable Panh to remember his uncle as more than an S21 victim, so can memory indict the Tuol Sleng guards by reminding them of their own humanity.
“When they raised their hands to beat people, I want to know where the human in them went,” says Panh.
And so does Vann Nath, who stands as a figure of implacable strength and moral outrage in the film. He confronts the former guards without reservation, asking how they could have become accustomed to such suffering, to have thought of fellow Cambodians as nothing but enemies to be smashed. They reply with silence, with excuses that they were just following orders, that they were themselves victims terrified of their superiors. But some reveal remorse, physical pain at the thought of their pasts, ongoing emotional turmoil.
One guard confesses that he had tender feelings for one prisoner, something akin to love. But he “helped” her craft her confession -- an insane document detailing her “spy” connections and her countless acts of sabotage -- and beat “the enemy” anyway, he says, voice wavering.
As I talk with Panh, I'm struck by how open he is to hearing the voices of the Khmer Rouge, their experiences. As Panh sees it, his fate as a survivor and their fates as former Khmer Rouge are inextricable -- and so are their histories. “Victims need the perpetrators to make the memory from their side,” he says. “To try to make the memory complete as possible.”
For a country still struggling to articulate its history, it's a radical thought. There is no Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Cambodia, and the ratification of proposed legislation for a United Nations tribunal still faces an uphill battle from a government riddled with corruption – and home to more than a few former Khmer Rouge. The truth is elusive as ever, and fading with each year that goes by and sees the Khmer Rouge leaders grow older in comfortable retirement.
One guard tells us in the film, “We invented the evidence in order to kill the prisoner. Each man has his own memory, each his own history. The aim was to break down their entire memory and make an act of treason out of it. Friends and family become part of a network in this act of treason.”
As he says this, I realize what Panh is trying to do: His film is S21 run backward, trying to put flesh on bone, memory to the past, humanity to both perpetrators and victims. In the movie's final moments, Vann Nath stoops over a pile of burned clothing, probing with a stick as delicately as he does with a paintbrush. He finds a button, holds it up, polishes and pockets it. It's a haunting end, a reminder of all that was lost -- and an homage to those who struggle to remember.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She researched this story on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship.