Q&A: ‘Enemies of the People’ director Rob Lemkin

Filmmaker/investigative journalist Rob Lemkin teamed up with Thet Sambath to co-direct an unsettling look at Sambath's quest for truth concerning Cambodia's Killing Fields. Realscreen spoke with Lemkin about the making of the film and a new follow-up project to be released this year on DVD.
January 5, 2011

Many filmmakers have tackled the unsettling and inexplicable subject of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, but few have dared to look as deeply into the madness of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime as directors Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Enemies of the People.

Lemkin, a filmmaker and investigative journalist, met Thet Sambath when he traveled to Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in 2006 to make a documentary about former Khmer Rouge leaders on trial in a UN-backed court for genocide and crimes against humanity. He quickly realized that Sambath, his interpreter and a reporter for The Phnom Penh Post, had been gathering information on the subject for several years and had a long-standing relationship with former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. (His trial is set to begin in mid-2011.)

The two decided to co-direct a documentary about Sambath as he doggedly pursues confessions from Chea and a handful of ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers. Sambath, whose own family was killed during the 1975-1979 period, proves an unflappable character by refusing to give into vindictive impulses in his quest for the truth.

Produced by Oxford-based Old Street Films, Enemies of the People was difficult to make for a few reasons. Initially, the directors struggled to get financing from TV broadcasters because several other documentaries based around the UN tribunals were already in production. Moreover, the sensitive and harrowing nature of the interviews meant that the crew only consisted of the two directors.

After premiering at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009, Enemies of the People won the World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It has screened in theaters across the United States, is shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination in the feature documentary category, and has just received a best documentary screenplay nomination for the upcoming Writers Guild Awards. Realscreen recently spoke with Lemkin about his experience making the film and his plans for a follow-up film to be included on a DVD release in 2011.

How were you able to tell that Sambath and Nuon Chea had such a close relationship?
They felt very familiar with each other because, at that point, they’d already been working together for six years. Sambath had sort of broken the back of getting the information from him and they just seemed to have a certain understanding with each other. They seemed to be quite happy to go from very serious to almost light-hearted exchanges… I sensed that there were many layers to their relationship. The first two times that I went there, Sambath took him into the back room and would lay him down to go to sleep because he was at that point having slight problems with his blood pressure. He would take him in almost like he was his nurse as well as his confessor.

How did you feel about that?
I felt a lot of things. To be honest, I felt that it was amazing because we had a film on our hands. It was an inherent tension in that. You wouldn’t expect him to behave like that. Right up until we finished filming the main part in May 2009 I always was expecting him to break out at some point and he never did.

It’s a bit like he set in [with] a very ethical idea that he was not going to go and start making judgments or making accusations and start trying to indulge in personal ideas of revenge, or making himself personally feel better about his own situation. He was always going to be doing it in this much more structured way.

You use archival footage from the Khmer Rouge period sparingly. The action is mostly rooted in the present. Why that decision?
And not only is it about the present, it’s [also about the] future because [for] any society that’s undergone such intense and traumatic violence, the only way it can really go forward is to come to terms with its past in a profound and full-on way. That hasn’t happened in Cambodia for 30 years for a number of reasons.

In a way it’s more about the present and a road to the future than it is about the past, hence we tended to use the archive in order to explain and give the audience some kind of experience of the past that was being talked about… it’s certainly not a history lesson.

Watching the film you get a sense that in the end, Sambath felt satisfied on some level, but I never grasped why these people would blindly follow orders – not that you can ever grasp that. Why is the ‘why’ so important?
In a way we have to get to the end of our process… We’ve made a film about Sambath’s process and the film is its own process. Sambath’s process did result in him feeling that he understands why all of the violence happened. When he says that, it means that he understood the rational decisions, the rational reasons for unleashing the violence in the way that it was unleashed.

In making the film, that has not been something we have so far been able to bring out. That’s why we’re making a second film which will go into the political complexity. It’ll have the same characters in it, but will also have other people that we’ve also filmed and it will feel a little bit more like a political conspiracy thriller-type thing. You’ll see people from both sides of the Khmer Rouge fighting it out and you will begin to see how decisions made in committee meetings over very understandable – scary, but understandable – political considerations about how to maintain power and how to maintain control of this very secret political party, which had taken over the country, [can be made]. You’ll begin to see what the impulse [was] and how that impulse towards violence played out.

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