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Enemies of the People

Journalist Thet Sambath metaphorically tills the killing fields of his country in search of answers.

In the watchable, melancholy “Enemies of the People,” Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath metaphorically tills the killing fields of his country in search of answers to why so many people, including members of his own family, were slain by the Khmer Rouge. Docu doesn’t pack the same gut punch that “S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine” did back in 2003, but this effort — co-helmed, produced and shot by Sambath and Rob Lemkin — benefits from its smaller-scale focus on Sambath’s personal journey and access to aged Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command. Human-rights-themed fests and highbrow cablers will befriend “Enemies.”

A senior reporter for the Phnom Penh Post, co-helmer/narrator Sambath explains in subtitled English that for years, he’s been interviewing people who took part in the horrific genocide by the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79. Sambath’s own father and older brother were murdered by militia during the period; his mother was forced to marry a Khmer militiaman after his father’s death and subsequently died after childbirth.

Spending all his own money and free time on finding those who took part in the killings, an almost always smiling and kind-eyed Sambath explains how even his own children go hungry, as every spare cent goes toward his work.

Two former militiamen, Khoun and Suon, open up and explain exactly how and where they murdered hundreds of people, including women and children. In one chilling yet almost comical sequence, Suon willingly demonstrates with a plastic knife and a village boy how he held his victims down and slit their throats — until a repetitive injury forced him to stab them in the neck instead. Now a devout Buddhist, Suon fears for his next life if he doesn’t come clean about his crimes in this one.

Sambath’s biggest coup, however, is in gaining the trust and willingness of Chea, once known by Cambodians as “Brother No. 2” (Pol Pot was “Brother No. 1”), to be interviewed on camera. Having groomed Chea since 2001, Sambath manages to get the old man to express regret in an emotional climax.

Shortly after the interview, Chea was arrested. He still awaits trial for crimes against humanity.

Instead of just showing the interview footage, the pic often cuts away to Sambath in the editing room rewatching his material. The device emphasizes his centrality in the story, but also seems a little mannered. More irritating is Daniel Pemberton’s bombastic score, which lays on tragic minor-key notes and groaning synth sounds a little too heavily.

The pic’s most effective moment comes when sound is muted entirely as monochrome images of corpses and piles of bones unspool the full horror of what 2 million deaths means in physical terms.

Enemies of the People

U.K.-Cambodia

  • Production: An Old Street Films (U.K.)/Thet Sambath (Cambodia) production, in association with Sundance Documentary Film Program, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, EC Media Programme, CBA-DFID Broadcast Media Scheme, Screen South, Rife Lottery Funding. (International sales: Old Street, London.) Produced by Rob Lemkin. Executive producer, Sandra Whipham. Directed, written by Thet Sambath, Rob Lemkin.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Sambath, Lemkin; editor, Stefan Ronowicz; music, Daniel Pemberton; sound, Alan Snelling. Reviewed online, Hoveton, U.K., Nov. 20, 2009. (In Intl. Documentary Festival Amsterdam -- competing; Sundance Film Festival -- World Cinema, competing.) Running time: 94 MIN.
  • With: (English, Khmer dialogue)
  • Music By: