Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Marking the occasion, Le Monde’s Friday issue has a full-page article by one of the paper’s international editors, Adrien Le Gal, “Voyage chez Pol Pot,” in which it is recalled how the Khmer Rouge victory was applauded by numerous Western leftist activists, tiersmondiste intellectuals, and engagé journalists—including, Le Gal specifies, at Le Monde itself. The subject of the article is precisely those Western apologists, delegations of whom were invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit “Democratic Kampuchea” in 1978—in groups of three or four at a time—the first Westerners to set foot in Cambodia in three years. Le Gal tracked down some of those visitors, to solicit their assessments with four decades hindsight. Most regret their views of the time, though a few remain unrepentant (one being the Swedish gauchiste writer Jan Myrdal, son of the illustrious Gunnar & Alva). One of the more vocal Khmer Rouge apologists in the English-speaking world was the British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in Phnom Penh in late 1978 in mysterious circumstances. French historian Henri Locard—who has authored a recent book on the Khmer Rouge—told Le Gal that he is quite sure Caldwell’s killing was an accident, that he was hit by a stray bullet fired by a Khmer Rouge guard in an altercation that had nothing to do with Caldwell. Interesting.
For the anecdote, I was one of those who applauded the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, apologized for them for a couple of years, and did not wish to read the horrific refugee accounts that appeared in publications like Reader’s Digest (which, as Susan Sontag informed an unappreciative New York audience several years later, got it more right on communism than did The Nation). In April 1975 I was a college freshman and self-proclaimed Maoist (a political posture I had adopted four years earlier—as a 10th grader—after reading Edgar Snow’s Red China Today). In 1976, during my sophomore year, I wrote a term paper, for an interdisciplinary course on East Asia, explaining and defending the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the population of Phnom Penh to the countryside. My principal source was a just-published monograph by Khmer Rouge Über-apologists Gareth Porter and George C. Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. The professor’s remark at the end of my paper was “Excellent!” (letter grades did not exist at my college but if they had, I would have gotten an A for sure; I probably still have the paper, buried in a box somewhere). The très engagé Porter—who’s still around and kicking—held a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell—the top university in that field—and was thus no hack, has sort of half-apologized for his Khmer Rouge apologetics (though he’s kind of defensive about it). Other leftists of the period, who had nothing in particular to say about the Khmer Rouge while it ruled, suddenly started to denounce it, and to give credit to all the horror stories, after Vietnam’s January 1979 invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The Vietnamese invasion gave them cover. It was Vietnamese Communists good/Khmer Rouge bad (like the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin). I am reminded of the spectacle of holier-than-thou leftists, at a public debate on US foreign policy at New York’s Public Theater in the winter of 1981, taking to task panel member Richard Holbrooke—who had just finished his stint as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs—for the Carter administration not having recognized the Vietnamese client regime in Phnom Penh and having backhandedly aligned the US position on Cambodia with that of China, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign patron…
There have been several cinematic treatments of the Khmer Rouge’s ubuesque, totalitarian regime, its enslavement of the entire Cambodian population, and the auto-genocide it embarked on (the first time in human history a ruling cabal set out to exterminate the majority of its own population). Everyone has seen Roland Joffé’s 1983 The Killing Fields. Last December Régis Wargnier’s Le Temps des aveux (English title: The Gate) opened in France. This tells the story of ethnologist François Bizot as recounted in his 2001 prize-winning book Le Portail, published in English under the title The Gate. In his book Bizot, a leading French academic specialist of Cambodian civilization who, since 1965, had been living in a village near Siam Reap—where he married a Cambodian—tells of his abduction by the Khmer Rouge at a guerrilla checkpoint in 1971. Imprisoned in an open-air jungle camp in Khmer Rouge-held territory, Bizot was shackled, mistreated, brutally interrogated, and accused of being a CIA agent, which meant execution. During his captivity, he witnessed the extreme cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, where people were led off to be shot or clubbed to death for the most minor of infractions—infractions decreed by the Khmer Rouge that almost no one could avoid committing at some point or another. But Bizot, played in the film by Raphaël Personnaz, managed to convince his otherwise pitiless interrogator, Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. Comrade Duch—played by writer and translator Kompheak Phoeung—that he was indeed merely a scholar researching ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When Bizot appeared before the Khmer Rouge leadership—the Angka, with Pol Pot presiding—to be judged, he was acquitted. Duch, no doubt at some risk to himself, had managed to convince his Angka colleagues of Bizot’s innocence. The scene of the revolutionary tribunal reminded me of the similar one in the film Timbuktu, which I had seen a few days earlier, of the formal commitment to law and legal procedure by men who know nothing whatever about law and are utterly arbitrary in their decisions.
So Bizot owed his life to Duch, a cruel man—a sort of Cambodian Eichmann—who, it would later be revealed, had had many thousands tortured and murdered. After three months of captivity, Bizot was freed, with instructions that he deliver an envelope to the French embassy in Phnom Penh. The envelope contained the text of the Khmer Rouge’s ideological and political treatise, which spelled out precisely what it planned to do once it had conquered the country. The auto-genocide was all in there. The treatise, it seems, was filed away untranslated at the Quai d’Orsay. No one read it before 1975.
Bizot declined to leave Cambodia after his experience—his family and work were there—and was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived in April ’75. He sought protection with his family at the French embassy, along with all resident foreigners and many terrified Cambodians. This sequence of the film is well-done, though Wargnier does take a few liberties with the historical record, e.g. in showing Duch as the Khmer Rouge official at the embassy gate (when, in fact, he wasn’t there). Olivier Gourmet plays the consul Jean Dyrac, who was the senior French diplomat in the country (France having formally broken diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’Etat). Here Wargnier, relaying Bizot’s account, corrects the portrayal in ‘The Killing Fields’—Sydney Schanberg’s, in effect—of the French diplomats in Phnom Penh having behaved cynically, indeed immorally, in pushing Cambodians associated with the fallen regime out of the embassy grounds and to certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot asserts that such did not happen, at least not in the way Schanberg claimed it did; the consul and his staff were faced with an almost impossible situation, as the Khmer Rouge did not respect the extraterritoriality of the embassy grounds, couldn’t have cared less about any Vienna Convention, and were ready to storm it at any moment. There was nothing the French could have done to save the Cambodians at the embassy who didn’t hold a foreign passport (see here; also here).
Bizot, with hastily made French passports for his family, left on the convoy to Thailand (though his wife didn’t make it past the border guards; she survived the Khmer Rouge but their marriage did not). The film then jumps to 2003, with Bizot back in Cambodia and where he meets with Duch, now in detention and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial finally happened six years later, which Bizot wrote about in this 2009 NYT op-ed. I thought the film was quite good. It’s engrossing, well-acted, and effectively conveys the evil of the Khmer Rouge (and it was entirely filmed in Cambodia). And Bizot’s story is exceptional. The one full US review, in THR, is here (it’s positive, though I totally disagree with the final paragraph, on the film’s supposed “one failing”). It will surely open in the US at some point. Trailer is here.
After Wargnier’s film, I simply had to check out others on the subject. So over the subsequent two weeks I saw two documentaries on DVD by Paris-based filmmaker—and co-producer of ‘The Gate’—Rithy Panh (not to be confused with the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose story was at the center of Roland Joffé’s film). The first one was the 2003 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a.k.a. S21, in Phnom Penh, of which Duch was the director for most of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power and where some 17,000 persons were interned, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Prison interrogators and guards coolly described to Rithy Panh how they went about their work. It’s an amazing documentary. An absolute must-see (trailer is here). Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial of the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide.
The other Rithy Panh documentary seen was The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante, curieusement pas encore sorti en France), which won the Un Certain Regard top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the five pics nominated for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar. In this one Rithy Panh tells the story of his own experience under the Khmer Rouge, of his deportation from Phnom Penh at age 11, the slave labor in the countryside, and death by starvation of members of his family. One particularity of the Khmer Rouge era is the near total absence of images. Mug shots at Tuol Sleng and a few black-and-white propaganda films excepted, there are practically no photos or other images of Cambodia of the period. Like the Nazis and their extermination camps, the Angka did not wish to record what they were doing for future posterity. So to make up for the absence of images, Rithy Panh used miniature clay figurines to tell his story. It’s an original film and powerful. Like his ‘S21’, it’s a must-see. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.
These are but two of the several documentaries Rithy Panh has made on the Khmer Rouge, one of which is entirely focused on Comrade Duch. This I’ll see at some point. He’s also published his memoir (written with Christophe Bataille), L’élimination, which has been translated into English. As with the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide and mass evil, there will never be too many books or films on this subject.
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