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S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

First Run Features // Unrated // May 24, 2005
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Scott Weinberg | posted May 23, 2005 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

In an attempt to shed some worldwide light on a modern-era genocide that's been shockingly overlooked, filmmaker Rithy Panh presents S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Approximately 2,000,000 Cambodians were killed between the years of 1975 & 1979, all at the hands of the communist political faction known as the Khmer Rouge. The notorious detention center code-named "S21" is where 17,000 innocent people lost their lives through torture, starvation, and disease, and it's at this facility that the filmmaker reunites two of the survivors with several of the prison's former guards and administrators.

If you're looking for a backstory regarding what the Khmer Rouge was and how they came to power, this is not that movie. While it's clear that Mr. Panh's intention was to focus on the detention center and the few tortured souls who escaped its halls, perhaps a little extra dose of historical background would have made the film a bit more effective.

But one can always hit an online encyclopedia for that sort of history lesson. (I sure did once I was done watching this documentary.) The filmmaker's goal here is to bring a pair of survivors face-to-face with several of their former captors while wandering the halls of the now-decrepit facility. Our "main" character is a stunningly docile (all things considered) Cambodian man who escaped death solely thanks to his skills with a paintbrush. Seems that the high-end administrators of S21 enjoyed being immortalized in his paintings...

The most shocking and illuminating segments of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine come when a former guard, only a few minutes removed from his "We were only following orders" response, offers a disturbingly accurate re-enactment of how the S21 prisoners were so callously (and casually) abused. That the two survivors are able to listen to their former torturers' claims is simply staggering to me. Imagine how a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp would take to a conversation with a group of former SS guards, and yet that's precisely what we're witness to in this film.

While one still wishes that S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine had opened with some sort of historical perspective on the Khmer Rouge politics, it's obvious that Rithy Panh (himself a survivor of a Khmer work camp) wanted to make a film about those who were actually there ... and he's made a powerful film indeed. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a documentary that focuses on a horrific occurrence that very few people know anything about. So if it exists only to shine a spotlight on a moment of history that deserves to be remembered, that's impressive enough for me. It's tragic to realize that the genocide of 2 million people can be so quickly brushed under the political carpet ... and this is something that happened less than 30 years ago.

The DVD

Video: The documentary is presented in a Fullscreen format, and I cannot comment on whether or not the film's aspect ratio is identical to what played in theaters. But the picture quality is quite good, taking into account the sort of shot-on-video documentary that it is.

Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0. The participants speak Khmer and Vietnamese, but obviously there are English subtitles included.

Extras: Running about 8 minutes is an interview with director Rithy Panh, in which he describes his escape from Cambodia to France and why he decided to finally tackle this issue in a documentary film. You'll also find a director biography & filmography and a couple of extremely informative text-based lessons entitled Film in Context and Cambodia: A Chronology, 1953-2001. There's also some production notes, an introduction to the Human Rights Watch Selects series of films, and a collection of trailers for other First Run Features release: War Photographer, Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, and Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World.

Final Thoughts

Frankly I'm embarrassed to admit how little I really knew about this dark chapter in modern history prior to watching S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. But that's what good documentary films do: they feed you the ugly truth and make you hungry for more of the facts. Rithy Panh's film brings home the horror of incarceration in S21 not through overdramatic speeches or tasteless re-enactments; he just brings the former captives and guards back to this horrible site and lets the cameras do the talking.

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