"Beauty confronts us with the requirement that we place ourselves among...the redeemers, the leaders in the protection of life. Once you have seen the bush on fire, you are not going to get out of the assignment unless you close your eyes to the beauty.... [You] either have to close your eyes or go back to Egypt and set the people free." - Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, "Rising to the Challenge of Our Times"

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

the horror

I added the movie "S21--The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" to our Netflix queue a long time ago because I was looking for films about the recent history of Southeast Asia. It finally made its way through the list having been bumped back numerous times by other DVDs that were more appealing. However, I'm glad I left it in the queue. It was so different from anything you see on the "history" channel or even good quality PBS documentaries we've seen, such as Ken Burns produces, and this is why: the film features a survivor of the S21 prison camp, Vann Nath, interviewing his former guards. Vann Nath survived because he was a painter and the men in charge liked the way he painted Pol Pot. Remarkably Vann Nath is able to ask the guards why and how they could have done what they did.

How often has that happened on this earth? That the victim and the abusers sit down at a table and the victim is able to call them to account? It was amazing. As dissociated and shut down as the guards appeared to be, they were obviously ashamed. Yet the film told their story as well. One of the former guards was only 13 or 14 years old at the time, having been taken away from his village as a small child and indoctrinated.

What was even more amazing was to observe the difference between Vann Nath and the former guards and see who was obviously worse off twenty years after their experience.

The film has some graphic photographs and descriptions of what happened but it uses no special effects. The guards use pantomime to describe some of their routines at the prison which is now a genocide museum, and one almost feels that they are like ghosts haunting the place, emotionally / mentally / spiritually trapped there as the former prisoners were physically trapped.

The film is probably not for everyone but if you are up for watching it, I recommend reading the Wikipedia link first to get a little more background. I had never heard of this prison before seeing the film and it took me a little while to figure out that S21 referred to the prison itself, and that most of the prisoners there were actually supporters / members of the Khmer Rouge movement that turned on its own people. Usually we think of genocide being perpetrated by one group against another. Perhaps the events in Cambodia reveal the falsity and insanity of sorting humans into groups who have some reason to hate each other. Is it more, or less, an atrocity to systematically torture and murder your "own people" than to murder "other people?" Trick question! The Khmer Rouge regime can be credited, at least, with not externalizing all of its paranoia.

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