‘S-21′ Reviews

‘S-21′ Reviews

‘S21′: Cambodia’s Bloody Hands
By Ann Hornaday, Washington Post Staff Writer

As movies enter their silly season, “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine”
arrives like a sobering splash of cold water. This devastating, elegantly
simple documentary about the ravages of the communist regime in Cambodia
during the 1970s testifies not only to human dignity and resilience but to
cinema at its most intellectually honest and morally necessary.

In 1975, the independent state of Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge, an
agrarian communist movement that had engaged that country in a civil war
since 1970. For the next four years, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot,
instituted a series of murderous purges throughout the country, ultimately
taking nearly 2 million lives. S21, the main Khmer Rouge “security bureau”
in the capital, Phnom Penh, was the main detention center of the regime,
where about 17,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed. Only a
handful survived.

One of those survivors, an artist named Nath, is the center of “S21,” a
gripping cinema verite account of his emotional and troubling reunion with
his former guards and interrogators. Now a genocide museum, the bleak
concrete barracks of S21 serves as the spare backdrop while Nath and
several of his captors sift through prison records, photographs and
artifacts of one of the most brutal genocides in history. With no narration
and only a few titles explaining historical context, “S21″ trains the
camera on victims and victimizers as they tell their own unvarnished
stories to each other and, indirectly, to the world. The result is a deeply
moving, provocative meditation on cruelty and suffering, all the more
effective for being so starkly rendered.

>From Nath and a fellow survivor we learn of the unspeakable atrocities they
and their countrymen suffered the arrests, the interrogations, the torture,
the ritualized “confessions” of counterrevolutionary treason (even falling
in love, one man explains, was considered a crime against the state). Their
accounts of lying for hours with the corpses of fellow prisoners, of
catching crickets in their mouths and being beaten until they spat them
out, of being starved and humiliated, are wrenching. But perhaps even more
painful are the narratives of the guards – some of them recruited and
indoctrinated as teenagers – who impassively describe their methods of
questioning and abuse. In the film’s most breathtaking passages, the guards
physically reenact their savage routines, their bodies unleashing memories
that had been buried under years of twisted political rhetoric and

The most frightening and dispiriting aspect of “S21″ may not be the
atrocities themselves but the ease with which otherwise decent men were
able to commit them and their resistance to their own accountability. As a
study in human psychology, the film may strike viewers as distressingly
relevant in light of recent reports from Iraq. But “S21″ never makes such
glib equivalencies, nor does it offer up easy catharsis or closure.

Director Rithy Panh, who was forced to work in Khmer Rouge labor camps at
11, has provided a vital historical record in the face of decades of denial
(Khmer Rouge officials didn’t admit to the genocide until last year, after
one of them had seen this film). But on another level, Panh has done
something more difficult in addressing the proper role of an artist in the
face of unspeakable acts. That role, he seems to say through this
compelling, heartbreaking film, is fulfilled by choosing simply to bear

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine – (101 minutes, in Khmer with
subtitles, at the Avalon) is not rated. It contains adult material and
images of death and torture.[End]

‘S21′: Unspeakable Crimes
By Desson Thomson
The Washington Post
Friday, June 11, 2004

WHEN a documentary tries to focus on evil, when it zeros in on the people
who committed unspeakable acts, there’s a frustrating diffusion. It somehow
never finds the target. The evil is always somewhere else.

There’s the testimony of Nazis, for instance, who insist they were only
following orders. It was the fault of their superiors. They seem so
reasonable, so disquietingly normal. Or the mass killer who speaks with
detachment about his (usually his) victims and, quite often, the
extenuating circumstances (abused as a child, etc.) that turned him into a
killer. Suddenly the humanity of the person, the distancing of time, and
the fact that this conversation is taking place in civil circumstances, all
combine to pollute the moral clarity we desperately seek.

The same disquieting phenomenon occurs in Rithy Panh’s “S21: The Khmer
Rouge Killing Machine,” a modest but nonetheless devastating documentary
about the kind of brutality that was official procedure in Cambodia a
generation ago.

In its conquest and occupation of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge army
slaughtered approximately 25 percent of the Cambodian people between 1975
and 1979. Its methods of interrogation, as we learn, were not only cruel
but absurd. Prisoners were beaten and abused until they revealed the names
of enemies of the new state: the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea.
Unable to think of anyone, the victims would simply name the people they
knew. Those named people were then hauled in for systematic cruelty and
inevitable death. All were killed, no matter what they said.

As the movie shows, one of the central points for this inhumane activity
was in Phnom Penh at the S21 “security bureau,” where 17,000 detainees were
killed. (A total of 1.7 million Cambodians perished.) Barely more than a
dozen survived; and only three, it seems, have survived to give their
testimony for this film.

It’s a white-knuckle experience to listen to these former prisoners, to
watch them break down emotionally as they visit this place (now it’s the
Tuol Sleng museum) after many years. One survivor, an artist, relates how
he was allowed to live because he could render flattering portraits of the

Director Panh, who managed to escape from Cambodia in 1979 and now lives in
France, also talks to young men who were the guards of this hell. They were
also executioners. They dug graves, killed people and buried them. Back
then they were teenagers, instructed to beat, torture and kill. Now, they
are still relatively young. But they cannot permit themselves to take the
blame. Had they not complied with orders, they say, they would have been
executed by the Angkar, or Organization, as well. And yet, in the most
surrealistic of moments, one of those guards reenacts — with a sickening
authority no professional actor could achieve — his routine of feeding,
harassing and yelling at the prisoners. He does it with a fluidity and a
joy of performance. It’s harrowing and enlightening. And somehow the evil
floats away.

Leaders such as Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea (the Khmer Rouge’s chief
ideologue), Ta Mok and Kaing Khek Iev, all await trial for genocide. They
are not in this film. We see only their work. And their underlings. And
once again, evil remains elusive.

S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (Unrated, 101 minutes) — Contains
harrowing anecdotes of a truly disturbing nature. In Khmer with subtitles.
At the Avalon Theatre.

Andy Brouwer’s S-21 page
Google Search

Leave a Reply