Between 1975 and 1977, the Khmer Rouge exterminated nearly two million Cambodians, almost a quarter of the country’s population. During this time period, more than 17,000 people passed through the dark chambers of the notorious Phnom Penh Security Bureau (code-named S21), where they were interrogated, tortured, and eventually executed. Director Rithy Panh escaped from a labor camp when he was 15, fleeing to France and later joining the IDHEC film academy. For his documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Panh instigates an open discourse between S21 guards and two survivors by returning them to the scene of the crime and having them reenact the Khmer Rouge’s rituals of abuse. Panh offers very little historical context for the crimes in Cambodia, instead choosing to evoke a devastating sense of absence via wide-open spaces, puddles of water, and a series of paintings drawn by S21 survivor Vann Nath. It’s obvious that Panh didn’t know what he was aiming for by having these men recreate their torture mechanisms, but as they reenact life at S21, the guards come to resemble beings on behavioral autopilot, and as such it’s easy to sympathize with them. Because several of them became killers at an early age, they are in many ways victims themselves. Panh’s more abstract observations serve to distance us critically from the horrors committed at S21, and, as a result, the more straightforward elements of the film often come across labored or calculated. Panh is a great theorist, successfully evoking life and death at S21 with as little as a pan across one of Nath’s paintings. Because one victim’s haunting deconstruction of words like “annihilation” and “destruction” is so powerful, the cutaways to S21’s dusty and abandoned interior often feel like simplistic visual accompaniments for the film’s existential open dialogue.
PBS-style image and sound for S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is both a good and a bad thing: The presentation isn't very film-like, but it's a much tidier-looking transfer than we're used to from First Run Features.
Speaking of PBS, a generic CUNY-TV interview with Rithy Pan shot in Central Park kicks off the supplemental materials, which also include a director bio and filmography, a chronology of Cambodia from 1953 to 2001, film notes from Human Rights Watch and a glimpse at other titles in their Selects series, and trailers for other titles from First Run Features.
Teachers take note: S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine would make for a great double bill with Schindler's List.