The Cambodian documentary, Enemies of the People is a one man labor of collection and recollection 30 years after the end of the Cambodian holocaust. Thet Sambath was a young man during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge dominated civil war which took his father and mother and brother, among an estimated 2,000,000 Cambodian lives, about one-quarter of the population.  Many histories and social analysis of what happened, and how it happened,  have been written as the country still, in 2013 gropes towards normalcy.  Thet Sambeth’s contribution is both personal and unique.

With a single hand-held camcorder he sets out to find some of those who committed the murders and get them to talk to him, on camera. It’s a labor of 10 years or so.  He leaves his small family every week-end and goes into distant rural areas to track down leads and persuade people to talk to him.  And persuade them, he does, with a mild disposition and knowledge that only time and patience will open up their hearts.

At some point during the filming, an American, Rob Lemkin, joins him, sometimes filming the film maker as he plies his trade.  Thus we have not just the response of those being questioned, but the relationship being formed between the older and younger men.

Two of the men accompany him to the fields where they did they killing, now rice fields, and the heavy berms separating them.  They can point to the land marks, however, which are confirmed when a village woman comes along and points to the same tree.  Sambeth asks them for details of what they did, and how they did it.  He asks if they have bad feelings.

His biggest coup is to get Pol Pot’s ‘Brother Number 2’ to confide in him.  Over months and months of visits he gets Nuon Chea to talk about the war and the killing.  Just before the International Tribunal caught up with him, Nuon Chea was still avowing the necessity of what the Khmer Rouge had done, how there had been some mistakes, but that enemies, internal and external had been responsible for the failure to bring a perfect communism to the poor of Cambodia.

Sambeth doesn’t indulge in gruesome over-indulgence, though there is some black-and-white footage of the killing fields.  Perhaps the most disturbing sequence is when he persuades one of his interviewees, to re-enact his killing technique, on him. The man is awkward and not quite believing the request, some 40 years after he had set hand to knife, but eventually he shows us, and a second method for when he hand got tired.

In the thin thread of trying to understand how people can come to kill their neighbors, this doesn’t add too much.  “They told us to, and if we didn’t we would be killed,” is the standard refrain.  But it is a quiet contribution worth watching: the sweetest people can do the vilest things.

Another documentary on the Cambodian genocide, which I have not yet seen, S21: The Khmer Rough Death Machine, also depends on testimony of those who participated in the killing.  From the reviews, it looks like Enemies of the People might be a better entry point.