Confronting the Unimaginable

in 46th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Leo Bankersen

“You’re not paying attention! These sessions are very painful for me.” Nath, who was a prisoner in Tuol Sleng, the torture center of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, is growing impatient when one of the former guards still hides behind the endlessly repeated mantra of detailed instructions he had to obey 25 years ago. ‘S21 – La machine de mort Khmer Rouge’, the French documentary by Cambodian director Rithy Panh (‘La terre des âmes errantes’), is at times almost unbearable to watch. It has to be. If it were not, it probably would be false.

In 1975 the victory of the Khmer Rouge marked the beginning of a horrifying episode in the history of Cambodia, resulting in the massacre of two million of it’s people. Now, after more than two years of investigations, Panh persuaded former torturers and executioners to meet some of the victims in the abandoned buildings of Tuol Sleng, where the so-called ‘enemies of the revolution’ were forced to confess their nonexistent crimes. Even being in love with a girl was considered faulty behaviour. Also, they had to inform on as many other people as possible. One of the guards recalls how he was sent on a medical course to learn how to prevent the heavily beaten victims from dying, only to be able to beat them some more. When the unfortunates had supplied their ‘information’ they were simply exterminated. During one of these weary conversations a victim notes that one of the perpetrators uses the word ‘destruction’. “Calling it ‘killing’ would at least have meant a shred of humanity.”

Nath is one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng. He owes his life to the fact that as a painter he was able to supply artworks in the tender style his oppressors seemed to like so much. Now we see him painting the scenes that haunt his memory. A couple of those pictures is put on display on the premises of Tuol Sleng. A group of former guards stand around it, reluctant to show any interest.

In some ways ‘S21’, which premiered earlier this year in Cannes, is like these paintings, but it can also be compared with a modern theater performance, or even with a ritual to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Only, the ghosts are not so easily driven out.

Apart from the stubbornly continued readings of numerous reports and lists of nonsensical confessions and causes of death – often in immaculate handwriting – and searching through piles of photographs of the living, dead and mutilated, the most striking feature of ‘S21’ is the re-enactments. In the cells of present day Tuol Sleng the former guards vividly demonstrate how they went about pestering the prisoners who were chained to the floor – an absurd pantomime completed with shouting and abuse. Thank God Panh didn’t ask the victims to join this macabre role playing. These scenes work on more than one level. They not only take us back to those moments of horror, but it is even more disconcerting to see how easily – probably just because a filmmaker asked them to do so – the players slip back into the roles they once had to assume to please their masters and save their own lives.

While watching ‘S21’ it is difficult not to think of Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’, though there are differences, the most important one being the presence of the perpetrators. Panh walks a fine line between accusation and the probing for confessions. It is astonishing to see how countless atrocities are recounted in detail by those who performed them, without any apparent display of emotion. Some of the confessors admit that a recognition of what they did would be too hard to bear. However true this may be, it is still an answer that doesn’t satisfy the other party. In this respect ‘S21’ remains open ended. Though the exercise seems to start off as an attempt to evoke understanding and maybe even reconciliation, we are gradually forced to admit that there are truths one can not possibly come to terms with.

‘S21’ is a work of excess and restraint. While we are becoming more and more horrified, Panh keeps the overall style of the film very much toned down – though not to the point where it would become artificial. He refrains from any explicit interpretation or conclusion, and never appears in person in any way. Also, the dramatic construction is rather sparse, as if not to distract from what has to be uncovered. At the same time Panh shows a remarkable precision and determination. He anchors the account with a few but well chosen images, like the washing of a baby in one of the opening scenes, and the discovery of a button in a pile of ashes near the end, both reminding us of a fragile humanity. In between those moments we are very much on our own.

More or less the same goes for the apparent lack of emotions. Because they are there, for those who pay attention. In one scene, a man who couldn’t bear the beatings anymore and gave the names of many other innocents, bursts out in tears. Sometimes, small cracks appear in the monotonously rendered accounts through which we glimpse both the fear of death and lust for power of the guards. In another scene we learn about the rage of an interrogator, stemming from the impossibility to acknowledge his feelings for a female prisoner. The killing machine did not only work by eradicating emotions, but also by perversely abusing them.

Once again, all this is hard to bear, but there it is. An admirable effort to respond to the obligation to the dead, the obligation to remember.