The documentary Comrade Duch: The Bookkeeper of Death examines the life of a gifted Cambodian mathematics teacher turned mass killer — responsible for the torture and murder of 14,000 people — and how he was brought to justice. Filmmaker Adrian Maben offered ITVS some background on the project, which was funded through ITVS International.
How did you come upon working on a project about Comrade Duch? In 1999 and 2000 I worked with American journalist Nate Thayer on directing a series of films that featured the last interview of Pol Pot, recorded on camera a year before his death. Nate’s interview was a remarkable scoop. For the first time, the most secretive of all Khmer Rouges – Brother Number One – was going to talk. On camera, Pol Pot seemed affable and managed to explain himself with ease. However, he said practically nothing of interest about the reasons for the murder and atrocities committed during his regime. He denied knowing about the mass killings because he said that he was at the top level and only knew about “important” problems!
Upon completion of that series, I heard that Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the ex-Commandant of Tuol Sleng, had been rediscovered by the English writer and photographer Nic Dunlop and had subsequently given himself up to the Cambodian authorities. Duch was being detained in a military prison in Phnom Penh, situated not far from the notorious S-21 Security Prison where he had once been the director. After discovering Duch, Nic Dunlop had published an excellent biography, The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge, where he tries to understand how and why one single man could have been so ruthless and cruel. How could Duch have ordered the torture and execution of at least 30,000 prisoners? And why did he force the prisoners at S-21 to write absurd confessions which were nearly all made up ? I was soon convinced that Nic’s journey was an essential chapter for Comrade Duch: The Bookkeeper of Death, because without Nic’s perseverance, Duch would have probably never been found and tried at court, and our film would not have been possible.
Could you tell us about filming Duch’s trial in Phnom Penh? After years of hesitation and resistance by the Cambodian authorities, a hybrid court was set up between the Extraordinary Courts of the Chambers of Cambodia (ECCC) and the United Nations. The trial of Duch or Case 001 finally began in March 2009 at a cost of over forty million dollars. It occurred to me that if Pol Pot did not admit his responsibility for genocide, then perhaps Duch might want to tell the truth. I wondered if he could explain what really happened and how it happened. On the first days of the trial, I went in with a small camera crew and began filming the proceedings. Actually, when I started this film, no single television station anywhere in the world was willing to back us and we had no funding whatsoever. Everybody told me I was mad, but I took that to be a good sign. And then later, with the consistent help of the producer Nick Fraser, Reiner Moritz, and the courageous Lawrence Pitkethly, the film gradually evolved and was completed over a period of two years. The risk paid off.
Duch’s appearance in court caused a sensation. Not only did he spend hours giving a history lesson on Democratic Kampuchea, he also admitted his responsibility — and yet defended his actions by saying that he was forced to obey orders. Furthermore, Duch asked family members of his victims to keep a window open for forgiveness. But to what extent is he being sincere? Is he pleading guilty in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence? Hardly a single Cambodian family has been left untouched by the Khmer Rouge tragedy, which resulted in the death of brothers, sisters, and parents in vast numbers. And yet, for over two decades, there has been a stifling silence about this painful subject. Finally, their silence is broken. The ECCC allowed civil parties to vent their grievances and the result was astonishing. Emotional breakdowns were frequent, and we learned much about Duch after watching him face the families of his victims. After these first days of the trial, I knew that we had a film in the making.
Do you believe that the Duch trial and his sentencing will influence Cambodian attitudes towards this chapter in their country’s history? One might argue that one of the main reasons for having the trial on Cambodian territory was so that people’s attitudes would change. The presence of the International Tribunal in Phnom Penh sends an important message: This is a serious attempt to bring major Cambodian criminal leaders to court and it will prove that people cannot get away with heinous crimes in this country indefinitely. The culture of impunity will come to an end. Organizations such as the Documentation Center of Cambodia made great efforts to ensure that the proceedings were seen by a majority of Cambodian citizens, even those in remote villages. They also worked very hard to educate and explain the legal reasons for the trial to the general public. Perhaps the most promising development from this trial is the simple fact that the Cambodian people are now starting to talk to each other. I believe that opening dialogue and asking questions about a collective past will be essential to changing attitudes in this country.
How are younger Cambodians reacting to these current developments? Unbelievably, until recent years, official history textbooks in Cambodia devoted only six lines of text on the subject of Democratic Kampuchea. It was as though the authors (or the government, or both) wanted to literally erase that period from history. I was told that not so long ago, no one talked about the Khmer Rouge. Teenagers even doubted the very existence of The Killing Fields, the prisons, and torture. The subject had become forbidden and forgotten. Today, the situation has changed. In 2007, a grant from the U.S. has enabled Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, to publish a well-written work about the history of Democratic Kampuchea. One million copies of this book have since been distributed to high schools throughout the Kingdom. It can no longer be said that younger Cambodians are unaware of the events during 1975 to 1979.
And lastly, why care about Cambodia today? Because it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. It is infinitely sad that the Khmer civilization — once strong and generous — should have encountered so many major problems. Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia currently has a much smaller population of about fifteen million. All the odds are against a Cambodian revival. And that is why I feel it is essential to contribute something — however modest — to help.
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