On the Scene at a War Criminal’s Conviction

Posted on August 11, 2010

The ITVS-funded film-in-progress Comrade Duch tells the story of the gifted Cambodian mathematician turned mass killer Kaing Guek Eav and the trial to bring him to justice. Filmmaker Adrian Maben was outside the courtroom last month when Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 35 years in prison. 

When I started to work on Comrade Duch, it was clear in my mind that this film should not be a courtroom film with heaps of legal wrangling and judicial squabbles. The central idea was to find an answer to the question of how one man could possibly inflict so much pain on his fellow citizens and justify his acts.

Nick Dunlop also asked himself the same question when he began his search for the elusive Duch (pronounced ‘Doik’). After January 1979, no one in the Western world had the slightest idea whether he was still alive, if had been killed for revenge, or if he was hiding somewhere close to the Thai border in Western Cambodia.  And when Nic accidentally bumped into Duch in the Samlaut district and managed to record an interview, he still had no clear answer to the question of why Duch did what he did. Could it be that, as Francois Bizot has suggested, we are all capable of behaving like Duch if we are caught up in a chain of command (and are faced with the choice of kill or be killed), or was there something especially animalistic about the commandant of M-13 and S-21?  

Something that made him execute orders with enthusiasm and fervor, making him a more than willing participant, as the international co-prosecutor William Smith sought to prove? Interestingly, the court psychiatrists pointed out that Kaing Guek Eav had always tried to please his superiors, or “upper brothers” (just as he tried to please the courtroom judges), and he was determined to lack empathy. It was argued that Duch, the gifted mathematician, treated other people like numbers in an equation. They were less than animals; they were enemies of the Revolution, and they had to be smashed.

One thing that I had not fully understood before Duch’s trial was the extent to which the Khmer Rouge — and Duch in particular – had destroyed not only thousands of lives during their years in power, but also had wreaked havoc on the lives of survivors. 

The courtroom scenes attended by the civil parties and witnesses were often dramatic. Some were given permission to address the accused and ask him questions that only he could possibly answer. For example, “How were my loved ones tortured and killed? Where were they buried? Why did you have to put them to death in such an inhumane and barbaric fashion?” Tears flowed and the president of the trial chamber was constantly (and rather tactlessly) reminding the witnesses to “recompose themselves in order not to waste the court’s precious time.”


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