Review: S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

Rithy Panh’s more abstract observations serve to distance us critically from the horrors committed at S21.

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Photo: First Run Features

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.

 Cast: Vann Nath, Chum Mey, Him Houy, Prak Khan, Sours Thi, Nhiem Ein, Khieu Ches, Tcheam Seur, Nhieb Ho, Som Meth, Top Pheap, Peng Kry, Mak Thim  Director: Rithy Panh  Distributor: First Run Features  Running Time: 101 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2003  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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