Starring: Vann Nath
Director: Rithy Panh
Writing Credits: Rithy Panh
Distributor: First Run Features (Cambodia 2003)
Rated: Not Rated
Run Time: 101 minutes

Perhaps the most depressing aspect to genocide is its mind-numbing sameness. While Hitler's death camps are the most publicized example of genocide in the 20th century, we should not forget the systematic extermination of one and one-half million Armenians in 1915 by the "Young Turk" government of the Ottoman Empire; the annihilation of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi in 1994, and perhaps the most notorious episode of genocide in the post-WWII era, the Khmer Rouge slaughter of 1.7 million people, about 21% of Cambodia's population.

The seeds of genocide are always the same -- first comes the demonization of the other, then removal of the other from the general population, then the dehumanization of the prisoners AND the inculcation of those assigned as guards to regard the prisoners as less than human, and finally, extermination. Genocide takes place in both the developed world and the developing world, and it seems that this sort of scapegoating taken to the nth degree may just be part of human nature. Also part of human nature is the need to document and record the history of each episode of genocide, in what has so far proven to be a vain attempt to prevent repetition of the past by remembering it.

S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE is Cambodian director Rithy Panh's Shoah, an attempt to document for the world what happened in his country thirty years ago. It took Panh two years to convince the two former inmates and the six guards who appear in the film to come together for a meeting at the infamous camp at Tuol Sleng, where nearly 20,000 people once were interned, and only six survived. One of those survivors, artist Vann Nath, is the moral conscience and narrator of the film. Nath was allowed to survive because of the bland paintings he made of Khmer Rouge officials. Indeed, he cites an incident of one camp guard who enjoyed talking to him about Van Gogh and Picasso -- another instance of the detente of art similar to that experienced by Wladislaw Szpilman as dramatized in last year's Holocaust drama, The Pianist.

The horror stories from S21 are similar to those with which we're more familiar from Holocaust films -- a "book of treasons" details such "crimes" as using too much fabric in cutting, breaking sewing needles, and refusal or inability to provide fifty to sixty additional names of "traitors" to be fetched and brought to the camp. Nath's deceptively quiet paintings illustrate the horror of the camp. One painting depicts rows of men lying on the floor like the paintings we've seen of Africans on slave ships. Nath explains this painting, pointing out one of the nameless, faceless men who was kicked by doctors after his death because of his "ingratitude" after they had allowed him to live. Another painting shows the anguish of a woman as her child is taken from her arms by angry guards

Nath's placid outreach to his former captors as he revisits the horrors of thirty years ago, even as the many photographs which now line the memorial museum housed at the former site of the Tuol Sleng High School and S21 beseech him with the eyes of the dead to tell their story, stands in stark contrast to the cold detachment shown even now by those who were drafted into guard service at ages as young as thirteen. "My heart never checked my brain", says one, "It was because of Prince Sihanouk's call and my anger at the American occupation that I joined the revolution." While it can be argued that the guards, mostly age 23 or younger, were victims just as much as those tortured and inevitably executed at S21, this viewer wonders just how much they regret or even are aware of the catastrophe they helped to enact. In an extended sequence, the former guards eerily re-enact their nightly routine, explaining in graphic detail that serves as counterpoint to the tranquil, tropical sound of tree frogs. As this re-enactment progresses, one has the uncomfortable sense that these men are beginning to enjoy this exercise in reliving their past; reveling in the power that they wielded for a brief time and haven't had since.

The many films documenting the Holocaust reveal a similar range of survivor emotions to those of the tranquil Vann Nath and his distraught fellow survivor, for whom even gazing upon the place of his captivity makes it all new. However, S21 is perhaps the first documentary to bring prisoner and captor together in an attempt to humanize each to the other, and perhaps answer the question of whether in dehumanizing the prisoners, the guards dehumanized themselves to the point of no return. S21 would indicate that the answer is "Yes."

Like most films that force us to hold a mirror up to the human psyche and explore the depths to which humanity can sink, S21 is not an easy film to watch. At times it seems overly long, even at a compact 101 minutes, yet this, along with Errol Morris' THE FOG OF WAR, are two documents of the Vietnam era that should be mandatory viewing, as we appear to be making the same mistakes again, this time in the Middle East.

-- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2003 Jill Cozzi and Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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