- Shattering Silence:Traumatic Memory and Reenactment in Rithy Panh's S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
. . . official silence . . . prevents public witnessing. It forges a secret history, an act of political resistance through keeping alive the memory of things denied. The totalitarian state rules by collective forgetting, by denying the collective experience of suffering, and thus creates a culture of terror.Arthur and Joan Kleinman1
This essay addresses the uses of documentary film in exploring a notorious Asian genocide2 and challenging the official silence that followed in its wake. During the Pol Pot regime (1975–79) nearly two million people, roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population, were systematically destroyed by means of starvation, overwork, torture, and execution. Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who is considered by many to be the cinematic voice of Cambodia,3 is himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. Arguably his best known and most affecting documentary is S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine/S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (FR/KH, 2003), in which he recuperates memory to represent speechless horror and thereby shatter silence. With its unsettling reenactments, S-21 allows us to observe how memory and time may collapse to render the past as present and by doing so reveal the ordinary face of evil.
During the Pol Pot regime, Rithy Panh's family was deported from Phnom Penh to a rural village, where, one by one, all but Rithy died of starvation, physical and psychological exhaustion, or disease. He was placed in a forced labor camp at eleven and escaped at age fourteen, eventually finding his way to a refugee camp in Thailand and then ultimately to France where he studied at IDHEC (l'Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques), graduating in 1985. He has since produced over fifteen award-winning dramatic narratives [End Page 95] and documentaries, many inspired by the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath. His works include Site 2 (DE/FR, 1989), a documentary about a family of Cambodian refugees in a camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s; Neak Sre/The People of the Rice Field, Les gens de la rizière(CH/DE/FR/ KH, 1994), a lyrical narrative about a rural family struggling with life in post– Khmer Rouge Cambodia, which introduced Panh to international audiences at the Cannes Film Festival; Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy/Bophana, une tra-gédie cambodgienne (FR/KH, 1996), a documentary about a young woman and a former Buddhist monk turned Khmer Rouge cadre; and The Burnt Theater/Les Artistes du Théatre Brûlé (FR/KH, 2005), a dramatic narrative based on the lives of actors and dancers trying to maintain their art in the burned-out shell of Cambodia's national theater. In 2006, Panh helped found Bophana, an audiovisual resource center in Phnom Penh dedicated to collecting and preserving Cambodia's audiovisual heritage and training a new generation of filmmakers. Panh's most recent works include Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers/Le papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise (FR, 2007), a documentary about the lives of Cambodian sex workers, and The Sea Wall/Un barrage contre le pacifique (BE/FR/KH, 2008), a fiction film starring Isabelle Huppert, based on a novel by Marguerite Duras.
It was inevitable that S-21 would become the subject of one of Panh's films. S-21 was the code name for Tuol Sleng, a high school in Phnom Penh that was used as the prison where an estimated 17,000 Cambodians—men, women, and children—were interrogated, tortured, and executed. Only seven people survived: three were alive when Panh began the film, and two agreed to participate.4 Vann Nath is one, and he credits his survival to the fact that his paintings5 of Pol Pot and other high-ranking cadres were favored by the prison staff. Nath functions as the film's conscience and the filmmaker's alter ego, "calmly holding up a mirror to each of his ex-captor's acts of inhumanity. . . . He seems the only man in full possession of his path," as one writer noted.6 The other survivor in the...