Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cambodia’s Unseen Horrors

by Richard Bernstein

New York Review of Books

October 8, 2013

Like other secretive and totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge left behind hardly any visual record of its murderous rule. Of course, the KR leadership, which held total power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, had plenty of propaganda made to show the glories of their remaking of Cambodian society. Notoriously, they also left behind black and white head shots of every one of the fourteen thousand people who were admitted to Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, officially known as S-21, who were then tortured and executed. But the only two western reporters who were allowed into the country during the KR years were largely unable to record what was happening. Last year one of them, Elizabeth Becker, had an exhibition of her photographs in Phnom Penh, which drew a large and intensely interested audience. Yet while there are portraits of guerrilla soldiers, working peasants, and plenty of the leaders of the Angkar, the Organization, especially Pol Pot himself, there are no images of the starving children, torture, executions, and scenes of grief and misery that were pervasive under a regime that killed one-fifth of the Cambodian population.

The images that do not exist form the “missing picture” of Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s newest documentary, which won a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and is being screened at the New York Film Festival this fall. (It will be more widely released in the United States in the spring.) The Missing Picture is not a systematic history of the KR era, but it follows the chronology of events, beginning with a brief recollection of Phnom Penh when it was still a languid and abundant Southeast Asian city, perfumed with the scent of jasmine. Then, with the collapse of the American-supported government, young Khmer Rouge soldiers emerged from their jungle redoubts—they had been recruited mostly from Cambodia’s villages—and took over the country’s capital. Panh remembers the silence and stares of these well-indoctrinated boys who were almost children themselves, the first sign of the regime’s mortal hostility to the city and its inhabitants, and then the four years during which the Angkar killed off hundreds of thousands of people—members of the ancien régime of course, but also virtually anybody with an education, anybody who wore glasses, anybody capable of independent thought. After only a short year or so, Cambodia had already become “collectivist, uncorrupt, equal, and prosperous,” as Pol Pot announced, though real life was “straw huts, drought, exhaustion, hunger, speakers blaring slogans,” and, of course, 1.7 million deaths in a population of less than ten million.