August 22, 2016

The shame of history


Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009). In a gentler and less cerebral way, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath gets to the same places Joshua Oppenheimer got to in his Indonesian genocide films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – the shame, the embarrassment of history. It’s a low-key, patient and undemonstrative film based on the slowly evolving relationship between Sambath, whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number Two”, second only to Pol Pot. Chea and other former killers contemplate their consciences and their souls, explain or demonstrate their methods and show us where the ditches were. What Sambath learns, and this is something the Oppenheimer films do not convey, is that the truth from the past you dreaded or always half-expected does not come with a great flash of insight or pain or outrage, but arrives as simple human sadness about our flaws and unexplained motivations and the gaps in our memories.