As a child growing up during the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath lost much of his family in the Killing Fields, including his defiant father and his brother. Not long after his father’s death, his mother was forced to marry a Khmer militiaman and died giving birth to their child. It’s a massive understatement to say Sambath has a personal investment in his investigation of former Khmer killers 30 years later, yet Enemies Of The People, a first-person chronicle of that investigation, doesn’t reveal a man out for revenge. Indeed, Sambath’s ability to set aside his animus and ingratiate himself with his reticent subjects makes this documentary possible in the first place. No one wants to volunteer about his participation in genocide, but Sambath, patient and ever-smiling, draws out stunning testimony.
Pouring every last resource into the project—he admits in one scene that his own family is starving as a consequence—Sambath pursues interviews with killers on the top and bottom of the Khmer food chain. At the bottom: Khoun and Suon, desperately poor rural farmers, explain how they were coerced into murdering dozens upon dozens of people. (In one incredible scene, Suon demonstrates his technique for keeping a victim from screaming before slashing his throat.) At the top: Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s right-hand man, with whom Sambath developed a years-long relationship in order to get him to open up before the camera. All the while, Sambath has withheld the revelation about what happened to his family, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Chea.
The 2003 documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine set an awfully high bar for reflections on the Cambodian genocide, and nothing in Enemies Of The People has the power of S21’s tour of a ghastly prison where inmates were questioned, tortured, and eventually killed. Sambath and his co-director, Rob Lemkin, keep cutting back to scenes of Sambath in the editing room, poring over his interview footage, but the effect takes away from the film’s emotional impact. Still, Sambath is a great reporter and a wise, sympathetic guide, and Enemies Of The People accomplishes the difficult task of getting mass murderers on the record.