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Tribeca Takes: Rob Lemkin on Enemies of the People

As Khmer Rouge officials finally go to trial for the crimes they committed, Enemies of the People exposes the it’s-about-time truth about the genocide in Cambodia.


Enemies of the People 


For the first time, Rob Lemkin’s doc Enemies of the People exposes the truth about the genocide in Cambodia. Despite the ongoing tribunals, the Khmer Rouge-perpetrated genocide in Cambodia (aka the Killing Fields) remains an unsettling chapter of history for the country. Enemies of the People follows journalist Thet Sambath's efforts to befriend the Khmer Rouge's grassroots killers and chief officers, gaining remarkably intimate access to their stories. He uncovers terrifying personal explanations for the genocide by allowing the perpetrators to speak for themselves. Given that his parents were among the approximately two million people who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime, Thet's dedication to reconciling the past with the present takes on even greater weight.


Enemies of the People was a 2009 recipient of the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund. It world premiered at the 2009 International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The film's US premiere followed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Documentary. At the True/False Film Fest, it was named the 2010 True Life Fund Film. More recently, it won the Annie Dellinger Grand Jury Prize and the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.


We asked Lemkin to tell us the story of his film, in his own words.


Enemies of the People


For six months we have been premiering Enemies of the People in festivals around the world to enthusiastic audiences, and we are looking forward to Friday’s U.S. theatrical release. Everywhere, people have been moved by the universal elements of this personal journey into the heart of the killing fields of Cambodia—a personal journey undertaken by my co-director Thet Sambath, who is also the film’s protagonist.
But just last week came the biggest premiere of all—in Cambodia, in front of the very audience who had, like Sambath, lived through the trauma of the Khmer Rouge, but, unlike Sambath, had never heard a word of confession nor apology from the killers.
The omens were not good.
The sky spiked with lightning. The clouds darkened. Within minutes the streets were under six inches of water. It was like a scene from our film. In most places the premiere would have been postponed. Or the audience may have taken a ‘raincheck.’ Not in Phnom Penh.
We had not been given official government permission to screen the film, so we projected it on the wall of an arts centre run by an intrepid German expatriate filmmaker. The Meta House normally accommodates around 50, but that night there were perhaps three times that number—many of them Cambodians who had never been to an arts centre before: garment workers, taxi drivers, hospital porters—in addition to international journalists, NGO officials, diplomats and staff from the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge court.


Enemies of the People


All were agreed that Sambath’s ten-year voyage to the innermost sanctum of the Khmer Rouge killing machine was remarkable for its perseverance, bravery and honesty. Many in the audience had, like Sambath, lost their family in the killing fields. Afterwards, several brought him gifts as tokens of thanks for his service to the people.
We’ve now shown the film seven times this week and we have one more screening to go, and I really believe that for the first time, Sambath may be approaching some kind of closure on the entire experience. The thing that kept him going through his decade of lonely struggle was the idea that one day he could present his work to his people and together they could all achieve some kind of enlightened and communal understanding of those dark days of a generation ago.
In making this film about a major but terrible historical event, I know we gave a lot of care to making the film as present tense as possible. We were always trying to achieve unprecedented investigative research into the past, while never letting it escape the prism of now. Observing the Cambodian audiences this week, I realise how crucially important Sambath’s work is for the future of the country.
Enemies of the People  Enemies of the People


As I write, we are awaiting the verdict of the UN-backed court on the first accused Khmer Rouge official, a relatively lowly prison chief. [Editor's note: Kaing Guek Eav received a guilty verdict this week, though many people feel the sentence was too lenient.] The most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leader is Nuon Chea—he was Pol Pot’s deputy and is known as Brother Number Two. Nuon Chea, who is the principal target of Sambath’s work and a main character in our film, is expected to be sent for trial in a few months. Since he was arrested three years ago—and Sambath perforce stopped filming him—Brother Number Two has told the judges nothing. This, despite the fact that to Sambath he has given a very detailed account of how he and Pol Pot ordered political killings on a massive scale during their time in power.
No wonder the court has sought to use our film as evidence. Amazing that such an institution with a budget of around $150 million [the Cambodian court] has not so far been able to obtain evidence as strong as one resourceful-but-unassuming young man with a small digital camera and an even smaller budget.
When you see our film, you may think it is an open-and-shut case. Many are crying out for it to be used to achieve justice for one of the 20th century’s most appalling episodes—and there is no doubt that it will play a part. But you may also take away something else from the film: that before you can get Justice you have to get Truth. Sambath’s efforts are in pursuit of Truth. His success is due to his extraordinarily humane attitude to the people who destroyed his childhood world. It may just be that his humanity may lead to something even greater than Justice. It may lead to genuine Reconciliation. And that may have repercussions well beyond the borders of Cambodia.


Enemies of the People opens in New York at the Quad Cinema on Friday, July 30.


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