S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) / S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge
28/11/2010 Leave a comment
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Rithy Panh
Starring: Chum Mey, Vann Nath
Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.1/10
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Toronto International Film Festival
2003 New York Film Festival
2003 Vancouver International Film Festival
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival
2003 Cannes Film Festival: Prix François Chalais
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Best Documentary
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Jury Special Prize
2003 European Film Awards: Best Documentary
2003 Leipzig DOK Festival: FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Dove
2004 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema: Human Rights Award
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival: Humanitarian Award
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Golden Swan
A comparison between S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) by Rithy Panh and Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman seems pertinent here. Both films deal with wartime atrocities and massacre, with the former on the Khmer Rouge massacre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia of the 1970s, and the latter on the Palestine slaughter in Israel in the 1980s. Both films involve directors who were involved in, and who survived their respective ordeals. Yet both films cannot be more different in terms of their stylistic treatment and aesthetics.
Waltz with Bashir is a highly stylistic animation film full of lush colors, crisp lines and catchy music that draws attention right from the start, before presenting the reality with strong impact by a cutaway to actual news footage showing the grieving citizens of the time. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, however, is a very down-to-earth documentary that casts a spotlight into the Khmer Rouge regime that occurred in remote Kampuchea of the 1970s, a historical incident that is slowly fading into the international shadows of obscurity with the passing of time and tide. With little media attention and Cambodia being pretty much off the radar on the international scale, this is not surprising despite the Khmer Rouge regime being one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century that has left at least a quarter of Cambodians dead.
Waltz with Bashir creates impact largely through playing with contrast, but the straightforward approach taken by S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is in my opinion equally, if not, downright more chilling. Rithy Panh survived the regime, and the director, who presently resides in Paris (France appears to be the ideal country for these war-stricken directors to seek asylum), returns to his hometown to seek answers in a straightforward interview face-off that brought together two of only around a dozen survivors of the S21 prison against their captors. This is what makes the film so intense, the survivors confronting their captors who once engaged in incomprehensible evil and trying to seek answers out of them.
The difference is stark. Age has caught up with these alleged wartime criminals who are, today, old and into their golden years. Vanh Nath’s saving grace was his artistic talent and his ability to paint realistic portraits of the war generals, and today he looks jaded with his head full of white hair. The other survivor, Chum Mey, broke down at the mere sight of the building, restored as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today, and could not bear to face the violent history and the ghosts of his past (“We suffered so much. Don’t think about it. My wife, my children… I’ve lost everything” (12:46)). And it takes a lot to watch a grown man break down. Meanwhile, their former captors back then are all middle-aged today, being barely teenagers when they were recruited into the regime.
In a tour around the museum, the previous captors chillingly recounted scenarios of their routines in the past. They unflinchly re-enact scenes where they beat prisoners, give them food, deprive them of food, and send them for execution. They complain over having to clean up after these prisoners, how they stank and how the trucks that shipped them to the execution grounds usually end up reeking of poo and urine. Worst, they appear unrepentant, brainwashed by the regime of the past that sought to create a Communist agrarian utopia into thinking that this was for the best. They do not stop to consider the implications of their past actions, and when the angered Vanh Nath—veins literally popping out of his neck as he struggles to control his emotions—confront them on what they make of their past deeds, they shy away from owning up to them by saying that there wasn’t any choice. But one can’t help but feel that it runs deeper than that, their bonechilling re-enactments suggestive of the fact that such torture and torment have been inbred into the recesses of their dehumanized soul, and that they still think that it is legitimate and even normal. (“When the Party makes an arrest, it arrests an enemy of the Party. Even husbands, wifves, children. The Party, S21, never made arrests by mistake” (29:43)), with one showing apparent remorse (“I was arrogant, I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal. I didn’t think. My heart never checked my brain, never stopped my hands and feet from striking” (37:41) / “Today when I think about it, it was against the law” (1:29:44)) as the camera pans away from the interrogator and casts a harsh light upon the captor.
The camera switches between medium shots that capture the vastness of the larger rooms, with the prisoner numbering of the wall bearing an indication of how packed these rooms once were despite its size, and the close-ups of the smaller cells where prisoners deemed to be trouble were sent to “repent”, by which a sense of claustrophobia was evoked. Adding to that are the numerous scenes that are framed from outside the prison grilles (51:26). The camera zooms in on the detailed records of the prison, including photographs to jolt memories. Interviews are honest: “They were putting a rope around our necks and pulling us along, like cattle. We cannot hear anyone except our own footsteps. They’d kick anyone who fell. And we obeyed, they laughed. Just like blind men!” (08:46)
This film has won numerous international humanitarian prizes, and was the catalyst leading up to a confession about the Cambodian Civil War after years of public denial. A slight pity, though, that the short black & white grainy news footage shown at the beginning of the film (00:54) was in sufficient to create the context required to fully appreciate or understand the film, which cuts straight to the chase. But one takeaway from the film is without doubt the similarities of the incident with the Fascist propaganda of the Nazis that led to the Holocaust. A single influential person could possess enough power to yield control of the minds of key individuals in a population that could lead to a massacre against dissidents. And one might perhaps even draw parallels to the ongoing Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea, or even among the militant Islam extremist terrorists plaguing the world.