Rithy Panh’s has been called a Cambodian version of “Shoah,” though unlike Claude Lanzmann’s epic Holocaust documentary this film is much smaller and more selective in its focus. S21 was a former high school turned into a detention center by the Khmer Rouge during its genocidal reign over the Cambodia people. Some 17,000 were incarcerated at S21 but only seven are known to survive.
“S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” reunites two of the survivors with several of the prison guards, some of whom were only 12 or 13 when they routine tortured and executed the captives under their control. One of the survivors is overcome with emotion and barely stays on camera, but the other (a painter named Vann Nath) maintains a stoic calm and serves as the voice of conscience while interviewing the former guards.
Not surprisingly, the ex-guards express little remorse for their actions, even to the point of claiming they were victims of the Khmer Rouge. Their prisoners, they explain, were “secondary victims.” These men, who never once apologize for their actions and never break their stonefaced expressions, routinely describe the manner in which their prisoners were processed, maintained, interrogated, tortured and killed. They describe the cruelty and depravity of their actions, which range from raping female prisoners to draining the blood from men chained to hospital beds, with a nonchalance that is similar to recalling an uneventful day at work. Several of the former guards re-enact the manner in which they threatened and abused their prisoners, making a clear effort to capture the level of authority they brandished.
This is clearly not a pleasant film to watch on many levels, especially in view of the thousands of black-and-white mug shots of the murdered who stare out in mute helplessness from the various walls, prison files and hospital journals that remained at S21. Yet the film is missing some key facts. Specifically, when and how was S21 shut down? Why were none of the guards brought to trial? How were the families of the victims able to locate the remains of their loved ones…or could they?
The film also fails to note a fact that many people (especially Americans) do not wish to acknowledge: the rule of the Khmer Rouge was toppled by the Vietnamese Army, which launched a defensive war against the Cambodian incursion into their country and liberated Cambodia in 1979 from the terror and madness of the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed nearly two million of their own people in the course of four years. It is a bloody shame that the Cambodian people, and indeed the world, still will not give thanks to Vietnam for saving Cambodia and bringing the horror of the Khmer Rouge to a well-deserved end.