Any discussion of Rithy Panh’s work requires some basic knowledge about the events that transpired in Cambodia in the 1970s. In a nutshell, here’s what happened: On April 17, 1975, communist revolutionaries gained control of the country and within a few days drove a large minority of the country’s population from its cities into the countryside. Those who were targeted for relocation — the nation’s capitalists, civil servants, intellectuals, professors and students, among others — were viewed as oppressors and referred to as “new people,” part of one the largest and swiftest population transfers in human history. The author and his family were swept up in the forced evacuations, among the millions suddenly confronted by the prospect of forced labor camps, torture, starvation and execution.
In “The Elimination,” Panh tells of his experiences in the days before the Khmer Rouge took over, and the violent upheaval that came in the days after. “We were immediately displaced. Starved. Separated. Terrorized. Deprived of speech and of all our rights,” writes Panh, who lost his parents, sisters, brother, niece and nephew to the killings.
Yet the book is not exactly an autobiography, for it also recounts the author’s interviews of Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, commander of the S-21 torture and execution center in Phnom Penh from 1975-1979, and one of the men principally responsible for the genocide that took place during that time period. In 2003, Panh released the documentary film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, in which he interviewed guards, torturers and executioners under Duch’s command. Troubled by Duch’s absence from the film, he later approached the commandant and asked him to explain his actions (which became possible after Duch was sentenced — and imprisoned — by a national court known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal). Perhaps not surprisingly, Duch comes off as unrepentant for having supervised the torture and killings of more than twelve-thousand individuals.
One might ask: Why didn’t the people rise up against the revolutionaries? The explanation is twofold. “Physical exhaustion was a general condition. The stupefied country was held in an iron grip by those who had rice on their plates,” explains Panh. But the Khmer Rouge also made it their mission to not just destroy, but to erase all trace of those who were killed. “When a prisoner died, his or her family was not notified; the body was not released; and no explanation was given,” writes Panh. And prisoners died in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. Some were dissected alive, others perished as a result of “total blood-taking” — to name but two examples.
As we now know, the Khmer Rouge regime remained in power less than four years, fleeing when the Vietnamese Army captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Yet an estimated 1.7 million people died within the country’s borders during that time period — approximately one-third of the population.
For his part, Duch doesn’t seem to want to examine the past too closely, disappointing Panh, who aims to “give [Duch] a little of the humanity he’s lacking.” In the end, the writer-director decides that “Duch isn’t a monster or a fascinating torturer. He’s a thinking man. But his failure to acknowledge in detail what for a period of years he did or caused to be done prevents him from advancing along the way to the human community.”