Thet Sambath, a Cambodian reporter, has a knack for smiling politely while speaking candidly about the Killing Fields. His smiles in no way belittle the atrocities, particularly as members of his own family were among the 2m Cambodian lives claimed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. What comes through in conversation is Sambath's sincerity and inquisitiveness, which form the core of "Enemies of the People" a documentary film he directed together with Rob Lemkin, which won a special jury prize at Sundance earlier this year and is now travelling the festival circuit.
The film, which screened in London recently during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, follows Sambeth's patient, laborious, ten-year investigation to uncover who exactly was to blame for perpetrating the genocidal murders on Cambodian soil between 1975 and 1979. After years of persistence, Sambath manages to establish relationships with former members of the Khmer Rouge, including Pol Pot's right-hand man, and ask them the difficult question about why they did what they did.
The answers Sambath coaxes from his subjects take a long time to unravel throughout the film. Epiphanies are elusive, as are evident feelings of guilt, though some of the foot-soldiers interviewed seem relieved to have the opportunity to explain themselves. Orders to kill ethnic minorities came from above, they are eager to divulge.
Sambath nurses hopes that the film will one day be shown in Cambodia. He could make the case that "Enemies of the People" could offer steps towards reconciliation. After a screening before Cambodian refugees in Utah recently, several women told Sambath that they had arrived filled with resentment, but that the film inspired them to want to meet the men who confessed to the killings and hug them for finally telling the truth.
More Intelligent Life spoke briefly with Sambath after a London screening of the film.
More Intelligent Life: What do younger people in Cambodia think about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia's Killing Fields? Do they discuss it?
Thet Sambath: Young people don't believe it. They think their parents are talking lies maybe. After the courts exposed the truth about the killings, students were encouraged to learn. We have new history textbooks now.
MIL: Are the textbooks accurate?
TS: Yes. They're not detailed, but they say people died. But the whole truth is not inside. We still don't know the real costs of the killings.
MIL: Why did you wait ten years to reveal what you found out in all of your interviews? Why not publish some articles in the newspaper you work for?
TS: I had to respect these people and keep my promise, or I'm not a journalist. Writing in the paper would have betrayed them and their trust. We're very lucky that they have confessed. Otherwise all we have are accusations, and they are not the truth.
MIL: After all of your work, how do you see Cambodia today?
TS: After all of these killings, people need to go ahead. We are working on education. People want to forget about politics; just living, and how to make money. They don't care about the politics, they just want to go forward.