On a sunny, mild spring Saturday morning in March, I rushed to 10 Chancery Lane Gallery for a weekend screening of Rithy Panh's S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine . The documentary was included in the exhibition 'Forever Until Now: Contemporary Art from Cambodia', which presented a rare opportunity to see contemporary Cambodian art in Hong Kong...
Here are some quick, chilling facts to put the film into context: an estimated 1.7 million people were killed during the four years of the communist Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979); of about 17,000 inmates only a handful survived the interrogation centre-cum-prison S21 (now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This destruction of humanity in modern history is beyond comprehension.
Featured in the documentary is the painter Heng Nath who survived the imprisonment at the S21. Depicting his devastating experience through paintings made from memory, Nath offers pictorial documentation of the atrocities. In the film he is staged to paint the portrait of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, as he used to do. As he paints he explains “My strokes were gentle, not abrupt, which could mean disrespect; painted the face in a pink shade, like smooth, delicate skin, as lovely as the skin of a young virgin. [….] Lots of artists came to work for them, but they were all killed. Their drawings weren’t appreciated, so they were executed.”  This is how art developed in Cambodia, and how a void was created as a whole generation of artists, among other educated people, were destroyed. Nath survived because they liked his style of painting.
Like any documentary on atrocity, this film is about suffering. In her essay-book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag protests the visualization of suffering through mediated photographs because viewers are “inured and incited to violence by the depiction of cruelty” when being overexposed to photographs of atrocity appearing in the media. In the case of Panh’s documentary he goes beyond acknowledging the suffering (i.e. not focusing on accounts of the survivors’ suffering), he protests against suffering by reflecting on the “the war language of the Khmer Rouge.”  Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge meticulous documentation, including photographs and a whole range of dossiers, was conceived as an integral part of the killing machine. Two tiers of this machinery are discussed in Penh’s documentary: the control over the jailers (indoctrination, inflicting loyalty by death threats) and the production of the dossiers themselves. “When the Vietnamese Army invaded in 1979 the S-21 prison staff fled, leaving thousands of written and photographic records. Altogether more than 6,000 photographs were left; the majority, however, have been lost or destroyed.” 
Drawing on a wealth of archival material as the subject of scrutiny, rather than merely as background research reference or support material, Panh interrogates the documents themselves, revealing in particular the absurdity of some scrupulously crafted records of fictitious content. The documentary revisits one type of dossier after another – the sequence of their appearance is loosely structured. Reading the documents out loud, either by former jailers or survivors (sometimes in the now deserted jail-rooms in S21), forms a major part of film.
Handbook / instructions for guards: This includes directives to interrogate “enemies” of the Party. One of the guards confessed, “The aim of torture is to get a response. We don’t do it for fun. We must make the prisoner suffer, in order to get a quick answer. […] Before torture, you check his health, examine the club, never proceed in haste. If he dies, we lose the document.”  Deep down, they knew that “once we had the answer, we killed them all.” 
Biographies of the guards: Former guards were often indoctrinated youth who would fake their loyalties and determination when facing this unfathomable evil. They obeyed and killed to survive. However, their rate of mortality was also high – “Even the guards. 30 out of 100 were killed.” 
These types of documents served to impose control over the youthful minds as active agents of the killing machine. A wide range of records was systematically crafted to tyrannize the jailed and keep the machinery of totalitarianism running. The former guards appearing in the film also consider themselves victims of the Khmer Rouge rule. In the eye of Heng Nath, these men - now middle aged, with haggard faces of devastated souls - are nothing but abject cowards.
Inventory of the arrival of inmates: Heng Nath examined a list that he himself appeared on and read the entry about himself. It reads: “Heng Nath, Age, 35. Painter. Arrived 7 January 1978” with the remarks “keep for use”. Nath was kept to paint. There were also Individual data-forms created for each inmate with mug shots the size of passport photos stapled to them. Nath went through a pile of these forms in order to find the record of his cousin who was brought to S21 on the same evening, but to no avail.
Notebook of confession: This is a document of confession after interrogation. Chum Mey, another survivor appearing in the documentary, was forced to admit to the act of treason in a factory and to provide a list of 64 people that he had denounced. For one of the illiterate female inmates, the guard had written up a dictated confession for her. This forged evidence on paper was used as justification for the subsequent killing of inmates.
Reports and photographs of the dead: The guards recall that it was routine practice to take photos of those killed through torture to report to their leaders (none of these photos are shown in the film). We see guards re-examining a suicide case, of which a written report completed with duly annotated photographic records is shown on screen.
Record of Prisoner Ailments: These are logs with details, including name and cause, of the deceased. There were doctors servicing the S21. A doctor treats to heal, but here doctors were there to give the prisoners some strength so they may be tortured further.
The director has noticeably subdued the display of photographs of suffering. The haunting collection of the methodically photographed Khmer Rouge prisoners’ mug shots has become a visual symbol of Cambodia’s mass killings, and is displayed in museums . There is only one, comparatively short scene displaying those iconic mug shots – stacks of pocketbook-sized photos mounted on planks, covered in dust. The powerful visual apparatus of the killing machine is intentionally kept out of sight in this documentary.
The ruling government, in power since 1979, has never admitted their wrong-doing in regard to the genocidal rule of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and after 30 years, with the support of the United Nations, Cambodia finally began the tribunals against crimes of atrocity in March 2009. http://www.cambodiatribunal.org/)
2. From the documentary.
3. http://icarusfilms.com/new2003/s21.html [Accessed: 20090314].
Original quote appears on the website: "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
4. Source: http://www.tuolsleng.com/history.php [Accessed: 20090314]
5. From the documentary.
6. From the documentary.
7. From the documentary.
8. Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/world/asia/27cambo.html?_r=1
- Mon, 1 Jun 2009