S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge)
(director/writer: Rithy Panh; cinematographers: Prum Mesa/Rithy Panh; editors: Isabelle Roudy/Marie-Christine Rougerie; music: Marc Marder; cast: Vann Nath, Chum Mey; Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Cati Couteau/Dana Hastier; First Run Features; 2003-France-in Cambodian with English subtitles)
“Offers one of the most powerful and unforgettable looks at evil.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Cambodian genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, an extremist Communist regime, in their reign of terror from 1975–1979, where over a million people were killed (around a quarter of the country) is relived in gruesome detail through Rithy Panh’ gripping documentary. He was eleven when his own family was killed and he was detained in a labor camp, escaping to Thailand in 1979 and now living in France. Panh brings together two survivors (one is an articulate painter named Vann Nath who states he only survived because his captors liked his paintings and the other is named Chum Mey who is too overcome to speak clearly about how he was savagely beaten and made to implicate 64 others). They confront two of their prison guards and in a soft-spoken manner relate their torturous experience when imprisoned in S21, while the guards relate that they were indoctrinated by the Party that anyone arrested was the enemy and in a matter of fact tone tell about raping the women prisoners and committing many other atrocities. Their line of reasoning is the same as the Nazi tormentors, that they were only following orders.
The prison was transformed from a high school, located in the heart of Phnom Penh, where 17,000 prisoners were detained and only three lived to tell the tale. It’s now a museum, and is invaluable as a lesson in history and as a horrific reminder of man’s cruelty to man; it’s where the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records that survived and are used to give the viewer an idea of what it was like to be a prisoner there, as the records are read aloud and re-enacted for the camera.
S21 though subdued and slow moving, nevertheless, offers one of the most powerful and unforgettable looks at evil; it’s as startling as seeing the Holocaust in Lanzmann’s Shoah. But one can only wonder what lessons are ever learned from such brutality, as this mass murder comes so shortly after the Holocaust. It’s also of concern that most of the leaders responsible for these atrocities are still alive and were never punished. Panh’ overriding aim is that this film can provide evidence to start the process of bringing war criminal charges against the Khmer Rouge leaders in the World Court at the Hague. This haunting documentary shows what happens when society gets dehumanized and though not a pleasant thing to see, it nevertheless is a story that must be told.
REVIEWED ON 9/13/2005 GRADE: A- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/