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Checking In With the Directors of ‘Enemies of the People’

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Director Thet Sambath and former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea.

Rob Lemkin

Enemies of the People was supported by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Our lives have changed dramatically in the two years since our film Enemies of the People premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. What had been a very secret film in the making suddenly became very public, and its public life has been incredibly varied and intense. And it has not let up.

Recently, Thet Sambath (co-director) and I made a two-week tour from East Coast to West Coast to trail our soon-to-be-released two-disc special-edition DVD. To three generations of Cambodian Americans, he has become a kind of folk hero—a man who entered the belly of the beast and came out holding aloft its secrets. Everywhere we go, people want to touch his hand and bring him gifts.

As for me, it’s a little bit less mythic: I find myself repeatedly being asked to give talks at academic conferences about the role of the perpetrator in post-conflict transitions. Of course, we’re filmmakers and we’re desperate to get on and make our next film, but this one has touched such a deep chord with audiences, activists, and scholars around the world that we owe it to all of them to support and develop the debate our film has sparked.

What’s been most gratifying (and exhausting) has been the way different world audiences have found the film speaks to their own distinct contexts. In Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania, it’s a post-communist movie; in the Balkans, it’s a post-genocide movie; in Mexico, it’s seen in the context of the current massive border violence; and in Britain, it was widely seen as the real-life counterpart to the Hollywood movie The Killing Fields. Recent screenings in Germany are building an interest which sees it in the context of German history of the 1930s and 1940s.

But perhaps the most important audience is in Cambodia, where the film is deeply controversial. The government has refused to grant it a cinema license—though it has had monthly samizdat-style showings in a German-owned art house in Phnom Penh. The license was refused because the history that the film unearths is still considered too sensitive.

In fact, the most danger Sambath has faced has been from unknown people who chased his car one night in the forested border area of the northwest. That was after we won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the film became big news in Cambodia.

The film was also controversial because the United Nations court trying the Khmer Rouge leaders attempted to subpoena our material to use as prosecution evidence. We resisted on the grounds that we assured our Khmer Rouge sources that we were independent of the court. The sources—Brother Number 2 in particular—understood that anything we put in the public domain could be used against them.

And that’s what has already happened. The British co-prosecutor at the trial, Andrew Cayley, used clips from our film to open his case against Brother Number 2. The film has been intensively discussed in cross-examination as the trial has continued. But our strategy has proved effective: Khmer Rouge sources still continue to talk to us.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened was a grassroots truth and reconciliation video conference that we organized with Californian community groups and academics. In this group, around 15 victims of the killing fields now living in Long Beach, California, held a three-hour dialogue with Sambath and three former Khmer Rouge perpetrators from the film.

We called it Victims + Perpetrators = Survivors, and it seemed to set a precedent for how reconciliation can be achieved on a face-to-face level. This extraordinary historic event was filmed and has never been seen until now. (Although the Los Angeles Times produced a moving three-page story, and Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program director Cara Mertes showed some brief excerpts during a presentation on documentaries in the real world.)

For Sambath and me, the current tour represents the end of the active phase of our film. After a brief (hopefully not too brief) rest, we will start work on the sequel titled Suspicious Minds—it’s about the politics that drove the violence, more like a conspiracy thriller, and it probably won’t feature Elvis Presley.

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