Posted by: Annie | February 26, 2010

Review: ‘Enemies of the People’

I’d venture that not many of us daily ponder how genocide is planned and executed, but I believe this thought has weighed on the mind of Thet Sambath since he was a boy.

At the beginning of “Enemies of the People,” it’s hard not to think the film will turn into a tale of Dumas-inspired revenge, but we come to realize that Sambath’s curiosity about the Khmer Rouge’s genocide is not fueled by a desire for retribution but rather by one for understanding.

Communist party Khmer Rouge ruled over Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Always fearful of Vietnamese take-over and a return to capitalism, the regime ordered the elimination of anyone not buying into its ideals. It is estimated that more than two million died in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Although the party mastermind Secretary General Pol Pot (also known as Brother No. 1) has died, several party leaders, including Nuon Chea (Brother No. 2), are still living. More recently, they’ve been brought to the UN-sponsored Cambodia Tribunal to be tried for crimes against humanity.

Co-director and protagonist Sambath, who lost his own family during the three-year reign, has worked on this project for 10 years, leaving his family and traveling the country on his own time and money. He seeks the truth from some of the killers and even Chea himself, but rarely reveals his personal investment in the inquiries. And yet, he spends countless hours with his interview subjects befriending them until they feel comfortable sharing their darkest secrets.

And share they do. They speak with such jarring candor, describing how they executed hundreds and left them to rot in ditches. None of the killers know where to put the blame or whom the orders came from, but all felt they had no choice amidst a kill-or-be-killed conflict. And each is haunted by his actions, dreading what sort of penance he’ll be forced to complete in the next life. One killer said he couldn’t eat for the smell of blood on his hands, a real life Lady Macbeth. And another even chillingly demonstrates how he executed his victims before looking directly into the camera lens.

Chea is not so forthcoming. It takes three years of correspondence before he openly admits to his role in the massacre. He claims those killed were “enemies of the people,” and that he had no idea of the magnitude of the genocide. These stark revelations are juxtaposed with images of the beautiful Cambodian countryside, a mix of confession and innocence, violence and silence.

What begins as a reckoning of history morphs into a story of a man and his sources. Sambath’s restraint, graciousness and steadiness earn him the trust needs to gather the stories. It’s an outlet for the men to share their secrets, a healing of sorts. At the director Q&A, Sambath even said he’d forgiven the killers because they’d been oppressed and had sincerely told him the truth for the good of future generations.

But how do we as humanity really heal from genocide? Can we the viewers believe Sambath has found solace? Certainly not. No amount of work could possibly satiate the questions. And he told us at the Q&A that he now faces further distress as officials pressure him and co-director Rob Lemkin to submit the film as evidence to the tribunal. For Sambath, it’s become an issue of ethics and authenticity; many times in the film he tells his sources the interviews aren’t a condemnation but a recording of history.

Sambath didn’t make the movie for use in court, “he’s just a Cambodian man who wants to understand,” Lemkin said at the Q&A. Lemkin also expressed how a war tribunal could soothe the international public and their view of the conflict, but does little for the people of Cambodia. Lemkin and Sambath both hope to show the film in Cambodia so that other victims on both sides of the conflict might come forward.

The intention is that continued collection and preservation of the stories of the Killing Fields will honor the dead and prevent a future genocide. And that is why Enemies of the People is the 2010 selection for the True Life Fund. Money collected for this year’s True Life Fund will go to support the continued efforts of Sambath as he tells this powerful story. If a film like Enemies of the People can move an audience from continents away, imagine its potential impact on the people of Cambodia.

Other Showings for ‘Enemies of the People’:
Saturday, Feb. 27 / 12:30 p.m. / Missouri Theatre
Sunday, Feb. 28 / 12:30 p.m. / Windsor Cinema



  1. […] it. (Accessibility is one of the beautiful things about T/F.) And I had the supreme privilege to review Enemies of the People, the True Life Fund selection for the festival. In Enemies, a man’s […]

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