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S21 : The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

A scene depicting prisoners at S-21.

S21 - a synopsis

"Memory is fragile, you have to try to be as precise as possible. All we knew is that we needed a team of Cambodians that could speak and understand the war language of the Khmer Rouge, and who had lived the same history." - Filmmaker, Rithy Panh

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. The Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, combined extremist ideology, ethnic animosity, and a disregard for human life to produce murder on a massive scale.

As hundreds of thousands of people slowly starved in the rice fields, a select number met their fate inside Khmer Rouge interrogation centers. The most famous of these centers, codenamed S-21, was located in the abandoned suburban Phnom Penh high school of Tuol Sleng ("hill of the poison tree"). To the Tuol Sleng neighborhood, S-21 was known simply as konlaenh choul min dael chenh - "the place where people go in but never come out."

Over 17,000 prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and executed there - only a handful survived. For S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, two survivors and a dozen former Khmer Rouge fighters - prison guards, interrogators, a doctor and a photographer - return to the site, which now houses a genocide museum, to excavate the past.

The singularity of the film lies in a confrontation between the survivors, who want to understand what happened so they can warn future generations, and the jailers, who seem stupefied as they re-live the horror to which they contributed.

Poeuv, a prison guard, started at S21 when he was 12. He describes his daily task of preventing the prisoners, driven mad by their suffering, from breaking free of their handcuffs and jumping out the window. He and the other former guards sit, wearing embarrassed smiles, trying to explain why they did what they did. They evoke the slogans ("the sublime blood of workers and peasants" and "pulling out the weed at the root"), and recall the murder of entire families.

Then Cambodian-born filmmaker Rithy Panh was 11, his sisters and parents were murdered by the regime, and he was sent out to a labor camp. In 1979, he made it to France and managed to win entry to IDHEC (the leading French film school). "I wasn't born in the cinema world, but I had to find a way to tell this story."

Although holding the Khmer Rouge accountable is important, where does one draw the line? Panh says he would like to see the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders, who are still alive, put on trial. But he knows that, ultimately, a tribunal won't solve anything, it won't bring his parents back to life.

What is more urgent is to help Cambodians work on their personal memories. He hopes his films will be a stimulus for just that, "It is a question of who we are, where we come from, how we explain ourselves to our children." And it is important not just for Cambodians, but for all of us.

"Rithy Panh revisits the most extreme Communist regime to ever decimate a society. Filled with reproachful ghosts, his personal doc draws on the testimony of victims and perpetrators, as well as the bureaucratic records. The movie is unforgettable; in its modest way, it's as horrific an exposure to evil as 'Shoah.'" - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

"Imaginative and disorienting... Panh's film excavates new levels of horror, capturing the grueling tension that existed between jailer and jailed. Through its force and honesty, Panh's documentary may help the healing begin." - MSNBC Online

"An affecting and effective film." - Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

"Highly Recommended. Panh illuminates what Cambodia is going through in its attempts to come to terms with its past and to build a just future. Although this film can be painful to watch, it should be of value to those interested in political science, genocide, modern Southeast Asian history, and human rights. An excellent discussion tool." - Educational Media Reviews Online

- 2004 Association for Asian Studies Film Festival
- François Chalais Prize, 2003 Cannes Film Festival
- Grand Jury Prize, 2003 Copenhagen Film Festival
- FIPRESCI Prize, 2003 Leipzig Film Festival
- North American Premiere, 2003 New York Film Festival

S21 - film stills

Vann Nath at S-21.

Vann Nath confronts his former jailers at S-21.

Press Talk

Face of evil

The jaw-dropping documentary "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" unearths the ordinary prison officers responsible for torture and murder in one of Cambodia's most sinister political prisons.

By Joshua Tanzer (Originally reviewed at the 2003 New York Film Festival.)

How often do you get the chance to stare directly into the face of evil? The documentary "S21" gives you that chance, and what do you know - evil's face looks just like everybody else's.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh reunited two of the very few surviving prisoners and more than a dozen jailers in Phnom Penh's S21 prison - now a museum memorializing those who were tortured and murdered there. The men look largely like anybody else you would see on Cambodian streets, and they generally have excuses for their atrocities, which they can still describe in dispassionate detail.

Some are lowly cogs in the killing machine, such as individual cell guards who show how they kept dozens of prisoners bolted to the floor and meted out sips of water and beatings with equal efficiency. At this level, perhaps we can go along with the excuse that these people were just doing a job, serving a party that gave them no choice in the matter. Yet, they did an essential part in the evil that was perpetrated within these walls.

Although one prisoner recalls how the ringing of a phone in the facility gave him encouragement, because it meant he was in the hands of the official state apparatus rather than the unaccountable countryside, consignment to S21 meant guaranteed death. Torturers in the prison kept detailed files on their victims (many are said to have died of "exhaustion" though some are acknowledged to have been killed during interrogation), with the knowledge that all would be pumped thoroughly for confessions and denunciations of others and then disposed of.

Two former prisoners - who survived only because they were still alive when Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese 1979 - are called on to be the moral anchors of the film. One of them, Chun Mey, breaks down in tears at the very sight of the building and cannot bring himself to go in. The other - a man named Vann Nath with sleek white hair, smooth almond-shaped face and sharp, wise-looking eyes - gives him reassurance before heading inside alone.

Patient beyond belief, Vann Nath draws out the jailers' stories in a way that few others probably would have the inner strength to do. He remains calm and attentive while they coolly recount horrors from the routine mistreatment of inmates bolted to the floor, to murders inhuman enough to make the Nazis' Dr. Mengele smile. His angelic presence is what makes the whole film possible.

Only once does Nath seem about to lose his temper. A painter, he has documented the jail's history on canvas, and he confronts the jailers with one of the pictures created from his memory. The guards explain unapologetically that the prisoners were simply enemies of the party - a rationalization that they still cling to after two decades. Nath's eyes flare and his breath comes hard and fast, his anger threatening to burst from his very skin. "What about 2-year-old babies? Were they enemies of the party?" Nath asks, and is met with the same reflexive platitudes again. The guards have found it convenient not to rethink what they've done. They still remember their motivational slogan ("We will be determined and successfully guard the enemy for the party! Determined! Determined! Determined!") and chant it together with gusto.

The stories these men tell of their own deeds grow more and more monstrous, but what's especially interesting is their own dispassion about it. They have the untroubled straightforwardness of men who were just doing their jobs, as if they had been mechanics fixing jeeps. Today they are ordinary farmers or city workers who happen to have rape, torture and murder in their pasts. One of the chief officers points out that at least he wasn't a thief. Another - reminded of the bizarre sense of romantic attachment he felt for an attractive girl he helped torture and kill - notes that they were practically kids, as young as 13, when pressed into service, which helps explain the brew of power, sexual awakening, peer pressure, dislocation, intoxication and indoctrination that underlay their little culture of atrocity, and even humanizes the perpetrators a little. In peaceful times, you might just call this high school; in societies out of control, it's part of what moves ordinary people to participate in genocide.

These people's very ordinariness is part of the movie's message. Culled from the farms and streets, these young men did their country's dirty work and then returned to normal life as casually as if they'd been boy scouts on a camping trip. The work of genocide is not carried out by demons - it's carried out by us, our friends and neighbors, when that particular madness takes hold. The defense against it is courage in the face of conformity, what Vaclav Havel in another context called "living in truth." The cure for it is to expose its face - not a caricature of evil, but the face of ordinary man - to the light. That's what Rithy Panh's jaw-dropping documentary does.

"This is not like if you step over a puddle and get your pants wet, then dry it off and forget about it," Nath says in the film. "Even after 20 years it hasn't been so long. This hasn't dried yet."

[Reprinted by permission.]

To see Vann Nath's pictures at Tuol Sleng, click here.

Rithy Panh

Film-maker Rithy Panh on the set of S-21Rithy Panh was born in 1964 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. From 1975 onwards, like all his compatriots, he was forced to work in the Khmer Rouge labour camps. In 1979 he managed to escape and reach the Mairut refugee camp in Thailand. One year later he moved to France and in 1985 he was admitted to IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques).

Filmography :

Site II (documentary), 1989
Souleymane Cissé (documentary), 1990.

Cambodge, entre guerre et paix
"Cambodia, between war and peace” (documentary), 1992

“NEAK SRE" Les Gens de la Rizière
“NEAK SRE” The people of the rice field (fictional feature film), 1993-94.

The Tan’s Family (documentary), 1995

Bophana, une tragédie cambodgienne
“Bophana, a Cambodian tragedy” (documentary), 1996

Un soir après la guerre
“One evening after the war” (Fictional feature film),1996 - 1997

10 films contre 110 000 000 de Mines
“10 films against 110 million mines”, 1997

Van Chan, une danseuse cambodgienne
“Van Chan, a Cambodian dancer” (documentary), 1998

La terre des âmes errantes
“The land of the wandering souls”, 1999

Que la barque se brise, Que la jonque s’entrouvre
“Let the boat break its back, Let the junk break open”, 2000

S21, the Khmer Rouge killing machine, 2002

Le peuple d'Angkor
“The people of Angkor” (documentary, in production)


The films of French Cambodian director Rithy Panh
by Caroline Herrick - editor of Persimmon

In the documentary Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy, a seventy-year-old woman with tears in her eyes somewhat bitterly states that she cannot understand why anyone would separate a husband and wife, as the Khmer Rouge separated her son and daughter-in-law, that she cannot understand that period and therefore cannot talk about it. During a discussion following a screening of the film at New York's Asia Society in May, the director, Rithy Panh, himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era, told a story about a young Cambodian girl, born in a refugee camp, who was growing up in France, the only Cambodian student in a French school. One day, the teacher asked all the students in the class to draw pictures for their grandparents. The Cambodian girl dutifully drew a picture, but realized for the first time that not once had she heard mention of her grandparents.

Unlike the old woman in the film or the parents who had not found a way to explain to their daughter what had happened to their own parents, Rithy Panh feels compelled to explore the past in order to understand what happened to himself, his family, and his fellow countrymen, both the tortured and the torturers, "to confront memory rather than to flee it." But he did not always feel that way. Panh, who was born in Phnom Penh in 1964, was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the city on April 17, 1975, and evacuated its residents to collectives in the countryside, where they were to perform forced labor.He was separated from his family - both of his parents were killed in the ensuing mayhem - and lived in a "rehabilitation" camp from 1975 to 1979, when he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. The following year, he made his way to France, and in 1985, he was admitted to Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris, France's most prestigious film school. For a long time, he says, he did not want to talk about his experiences. And he thinks it is natural to want to forget, but adds that genocide is unnatural and impossible to forget. Then, at some point, he realized that "you need to make peace with the past in order to confront the future." For him, speaking about what had happened became imperative - both to honor those who lost their lives and to come to terms with what he describes as "survivors' guilt," the nagging question that haunts most of those who lived through that era, why they survived when so many did not. Although he did not set out to become a filmmaker - Panh says that if Pol Pot had not come to power, he would have become a teacher, like his father, or an astronaut, like Neil Armstrong, a childhood idol - film was the medium he found most suited his purposes.

Following his directorial debut with a short film in 1988, Panh has created a number of documentaries that, directly or indirectly, deal with the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime, whether the subject is life in a Cambodian refugee camp across the border in neighboring Thailand, as in Site II (1989), or the story of a young woman who was incarcerated in Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison and put to death in 1977, at the age of twenty-five, as in Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy (1996), or migrant workers in the 1990s who are haunted by the bones of the dead and the land mines they uncover as they dig a trench across the countryside for a multinational corporation's transcontinental fiberoptic cable, as in The Land of Wandering Souls (1999). In addition, he has made two feature films, The Rice People (1994), adapted from a Malay novel, about the struggle for survival of a rice-farming family in a remote village, and One Evening After the War (1997), the story of a romance between a prostitute and a young Cambodian soldier who is returning to civilian life. Each of the films portrays people who live on the edge: the refugee-camp dwellers in Site II receive two rations of sugar a year and say they do not know how they would survive without the food rations provided by international humanitarian organizations; the migrant workers in The Land of Wandering Souls, whose meager wages are not enough to live on, shake ants from a branch to add protein to their soup; and in The Rice People, after the death of her husband, the mother of seven daughters goes mad, leaving the young girls to raise and harvest the rice crop by themselves. Tragic as the films are, each of them is suffused with the dignity of the individual. Panh does not idealize people, nor does he villainize them. The good exists along with the bad: an old woman shares what little food she has with a young migrant worker and her children, a foreman absconds with the payroll intended for his workers; neighbors help a family in distress, thieves pray upon the residents of a refugee camp.

Panh says he is not interested in making a political statement. An estimated 1.7 million people - nearly a quarter of the population - were killed in Cambodia during the Pol Pot years. But the magnitude of that calamity is not the subject of his films; what concerns him is each of the lives that was interrupted. Panh makes films about the individual, that explore how the individual confronts history, that allow the individual to speak. In Site II, it is the mother of a refugee family who describes how they got to the camp, what life is like there, and her hopes for her children. In Bophana, the voices of the young woman and her husband are allowed to speak through the letters they wrote to each other when they were parted, due to the Pol Pot regime, letters that incriminated them - "in a country where love was an outrage to the revolutionary purity," as the film's narrator describes it - and ultimately led to their deaths. Of the fifteen thousand to twenty thousand prisoners incarcerated in Tuol Sleng, there were only seven survivors, and two of them - the sculptor Im Chann and Vann Nath, the painter whose works are on display in the museum that the former prison houses today - appear in Bophana, describing their experiences, as does one of the former guards, named Huoy, who nervously relates how he led prisoners to their executions. And to make The Land of Wandering Souls, Panh's crew spent four months with the migrant workers, using two small video cameras to film them. As Panh describes it, when the workers were in the hot sun all day, we were in the hot sun all day, when they were in the water, we were in the water with them. The workers' conversations are recorded at such close range that viewers feel like they are sitting right beside them, listening in.

The Land of Wandering Souls, which explores the relationship between modern technology and the people who contribute to making it possible but do not have access to it themselves, is the first of Panh's films to be made with a Cambodian crew. (In one scene, as two of the workers, who have been digging the trench with hoes, discuss the marvels of electronic communication, one wryly remarks,"I don't have electricity" and then goes on to say that he often doesn't have kerosene for his lamp.) One of Panh's concerns is the dominance of Western media and the notion that the records of our era are being created with one voice; the example he gives is of the number of satellite television stations that reach Cambodia today, none of which provides information that is particularly relevant to people's lives there.

For him, it is important that Cambodians, and others throughout the world, be able to tell their own stories. To that end, in 1991 the director, who now divides his time between France and Cambodia, began training Cambodians in the art of filmmaking. He started out by instructing a team in Phnom Penh, then took them to France for a month to see how filmmakers there worked. Next, he began hiring them as assistants; each of the European technicians who worked on his films took on four or five Cambodians as trainees. Panh says it takes four to five years for the trainees to become ready to perform the jobs themselves. The director's forthcoming documentary, on the people who live around Angkor, is also made with a Cambodian crew. Although he has not yet made a feature film with a Cambodian crew - his feature films are shot in thirtiy-five millimeter, while the documentaries are on video - he says that possibly the next one, whose subject has not yet been determined, will be.

To preserve the past and prepare for the future, Panh and a colleague are planning to create a cinémathèque in Phnom Penh, a center for the audiovisual arts. It will serve as a repository for film, sound, and photography archives, such as the rare black-and-white Khmer Rouge footage used in Bophana; as a center for research; and also as a school where Cambodians can receive training in filmmaking, broadcasting, sound recording, and photography. Panh feels that it is time to do something inside the country instead of sending students abroad to study. Right now he is working on fundraising for the center.

Although Panh's films have been widely distributed in Europe, both on television and in theaters, and have been critically acclaimed at film festivals the world over, they have rarely been seen in the United States. To date, there have been only a handful of public screenings here, two at college campuses, one at the Asia Society in New York, and one in Long Beach, California, where there is a large Cambodian population. The Land of Wandering Souls, was shown on PBS in 2002, but in a shortened version; the ninety-minute film was cut to fifty minutes, presumably to fit American time slots - and attention spans. However, perhaps this is about to change. Panh's latest film, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which was shown in a special presentation at Cannes this year, has been picked up by an American distributor, and it is anticipated that it will be shown at film festivals and theaters here. The film documents the memories of prisoners who were held at S21, as the Tuol Sleng prison was known, and those of their captors, building on the encounter between the survivor Vann Nath, and Huoy, the former prison guard, that took place in Bophana.

Although bringing those responsible for what happened during the Khmer Rouge era to justice is important, the question is how to do it. Where does one draw the line? As Panh points out, the United States and a number of other countries at one time recognized the Khmer Rouge regime. Panh says he would like to see the ten or twenty highest-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who are still alive today put on trial. But he knows that, ultimately, a tribunal won't solve anything, it won't bring his parents back to life. What is more urgent is to help Cambodians work on their personal memories so that they can come to terms with the past. He hopes his films will be a jumping-off point for them to do just that. "It is a question of who we are, where we come from, how we explain ourselves to our children." And it is important not just for Cambodians, but for everyone. © 2003 by Contemporary Asian Culture, Inc

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