Geoffrey Smith: What is ‘Enemies of the People’ about?
Rob Lemkin: Enemies of the People is a film that follows the journey of my co-director, and essentially the subject of the film, Thet Sambath, who lost his family 30 years ago in the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge. He spent the last ten years doing something quite extraordinary — befriending the killers and architects of this mass slaughter in order to persuade them to tell him the truth of what happened. Enemies of the People follows that extraordinary journey.
Smith: It’s not just an account of something that happened. It portrays a young man trying to make sense of something that happened in the past.
Lemkin: Yes, definitely. We were not making a history film. What happened in Cambodia has happened in many other places. All around the world, there are people like Sambath who are trying to find their way forward from this kind of darkness. That’s what our film is really about. But, of course, involved in that story is this history of Cambodia, the end of the Vietnam War, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and a genocide in which 2 million people died. Nearly one in five of the Cambodian population was killed during the Khmer Rouge period.
Smith: Why did you choose to make a film about this story?
Lemkin: When I was at the BBC about 15 years ago, I made a film with a man who was a friend of Pol Pot. What he told me about Pol Pot was intriguing. From what this man told me, I felt that there was something going on in the killing fields of Cambodia that hadn’t been properly told. I went to Cambodia in 2006 with a plan to do a film, as the United Nations tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge leaders for massive international crimes, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide was looking like it was going to happen, after people had been waiting for nearly 30 years. I was very fortunate and privileged to meet Sambath on that first trip, and he started off working with me as a fixer and translator. Then, I realized that he actually was the story. We decided to collaborate and make the film 50/50 together for the next three or four years.
Smith: What did you find so compelling about Sambath?
Lemkin: Sambath acts with extraordinary equanimity in the face of people who have done terrible things. His own father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in a very gory and horrible way. Then, in the film, Sambath is with men who are talking about killing other people in exactly the same way. His commitment to the truth, his interest in trying to excavate everything that happened in this period in order to produce a greater social good is remarkable. The way in which he’s able to place himself and his own emotions and understandable anger to one side in the cause of attempting to get to this kind of truth is really incredible.
Smith: How did you see Sambath gaining the trust of others?
Lemkin: He doesn’t attempt to see somebody and get an instant result. He genuinely relates to people as a human being who wants to have a conversation, a genuine person-to-person type of communication. A crucial thing that enabled him to talk to these particular people was that the Khmer Rouge regime was largely staffed by very poor rural people. It was an agrarian revolution that turned the world upside down for three and a half years. Those very poor rural farmers — “peasants,” some might call them — are people who don’t particularly like to talk to urban, cosmopolitan journalist types. Sambath himself comes from a rural, poor farming background and he can relate to them. That enables a kind of genuineness and authenticity of communication. His perseverance and his own background were key.
Smith: A lack of judgment and a willingness to hear what people have got to say for the sake of history, for the sake of, dare I say, even their own dignity, has to be accorded to people before they’ll feel comfortable.
Lemkin: Definitely. Take, for example, Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two,” Pol Pot’s deputy. He has had many journalists over the years come to him, always in a spirit of accusation, making allegations, and quite reasonably so. Sambath didn’t come in that spirit. He didn’t come to any of the Khmer Rouge people in that spirit. He came in the spirit of tell me what you know. Tell me what you did. Tell me how you feel about what you did. Just tell me.
Smith: Did you see a type of confessional, therapeutic and cathartic exchange with any of the people you spoke to over the time you were there?
Lemkin: If you look at the entirety of the process, it began as very private confessions. Sambath talked to one of the perpetrators, one of the Khmer Rouge killers, on a one-to-one basis. It started off as a very private confession and expanded as that person then helped him find someone else who was also involved in killing. These people, these perpetrators, began to take ownership of the project with us, a kind of joint ownership, to the point where they would help us find other people. What they really wanted was for the film to be an oral library of what had happened in that period. They wanted to use the library, the material, the interviews and the film to persuade more people to talk, so that ultimately there can be a meaningful reconciliation in Cambodia. That’s what everyone wants most.
Smith: What surprised you the most about the subject or the characters?
Lemkin: I wasn’t prepared for the real depth of philosophical insight that some of the people in our film, including Sambath, were able to find. Most of the people in our film are not educated at all, are not particularly articulate and have ended up getting dragged into appalling stuff in their history. But, they have found an incredible insight into the nature of being alive, because they have had to do these very extreme things.
Smith: Did that impact you personally? Did you ask yourself questions about your own life?
Lemkin: The experience of being with these people makes you think, could I be a mass murderer? I think the uncomfortable answer comes back “yes.” There’s no difference between me and the people who are in our film except the conditions that turned them into mass killers.
Smith: In your opinion, how does the documentary deal with the objective versus the subjective?
Lemkin: Documentary takes the audience through a process and an experience. It’s an emotional experience. That’s the difference between documentary and current affairs television, in which a disembodied voice tells you what the truth is, what should be important, what you should latch onto when you’re hearing a story. Documentary gives the audience much greater latitude to form different impressions of characters and to chart emotional responses, such as “I don’t know why so and so did that” or “gosh, I am now beginning to distrust this person.” A little bit later on, they may respond, “oh, now I’m beginning to warm to him or her again.” The viewers chart their emotions as they do with a fiction film, book or play. I think documentary has got that ability to take the audience on an emotional experience, which is why it’s so important and why it’s so useful.
Smith: Yes, I definitely agree with that. The relationship between the filmmaker and the subject is paramount in documentary. That’s what the audience is actually watching. So when that’s a good relationship, it can be a very emotional one. That is something audiences gravitate toward and, perhaps, in many ways miss in so many other forms of programming. What do you think is the most important ethical concern for documentary filmmakers today?
Lemkin: We as documentary filmmakers, because of the change in technology and the Internet, now have relationships with our characters and with our subjects that will go on forever. We don’t just make a film that is going to be shown on television once, or a few times in a few cinemas, and then shelve it forever. Our relationship with the people in our film is something that we’ll all have to live with for however many more years we are on this planet. We can’t turn up and ambush someone, treat him badly in order to get a good effect or a good story for our film and then run off and feel like that’s been boxed away and passed. It’s going to be there forever now.