Untiring journalist elicits groundbreaking testimonies from ex-Khmer Rouge men in One World film Enemies of the People

Thet Sambath, Nuon Chea (right), photo: www.enemiesofthepeoplemovie.com

Enemies of the People, one of over 100 films being screened at the One World festival of human rights documentaries in Prague, follows the journalist Thet Sambath as he tracks down and speaks to former members of the Khmer Rouge in his native Cambodia. The result is a series of groundbreaking interviews, including one with Pol Pot’s one-time right-hand man, Nuon Chea. The film’s co-director Rob Lemkin told me about Thet Sambath and his remarkable journey.

Thet Sambath, Nuon Chea (right), photo: www.enemiesofthepeoplemovie.com
“He spent 10 years trying to find out the truth about the Killing Fields and the millions of people that died in Cambodia from the people who ran the Khmer Rouge and from the people who did the killing.

“It was a very personal, difficult mission. He was motivated by his own family who had died at that time. His father was killed, his mother died, and his brother was murdered as well.

“This is what really led him to keep going for 10 years, to gradually, weekend by weekend by weekend, make these people trust him and speak to him about the truth of what they did.”

What has he achieved with this quest of his?

“Well he has achieved a much greater understanding and amount of information about the Khmer Rouge regime than has ever been gathered before.

“And from his own personal point of view he has reached a kind of understanding of what the violence was that destroyed his own childhood world. For him that’s a very important personal achievement.”

Among those who he speaks to is the so-called Brother No. Two, the second in command of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea. I was surprised he would agree to speak to anybody. He’s an old man now, but I was surprised he’d speak to anybody at all.

Thet Sambath, Rob Lemkin (right), photo: www.enemiesofthepeoplemovie.com
“I think he’s a man who wants to put his account of history on the record, and in doing so he has come to trust Sambath as the person who can help him put that account on record.

“In doing so he is of course admitting to huge responsibility for huge numbers of deaths. He’s not denying that. But his feeling is that before he dies he wanted at least to give Cambodians and people in the rest of the world his point of view on this appalling period of history.”

Teth Sambath’s method is over many years to build up the trust of these people. Did the presence of your cameras impede his interviews at all?

“No. By and large, the exclusive and extremely secret revelations that take place in the film are done by him alone. I filmed with him for the last three years. I was working out the interviews and the questions that we were going to put in the interviews.

“But for the very secret things with Nuon Chea…and also there is a scene in the film where Nuon Chea meets two killers and they all discuss why they all were involved in such killing – this is the kind of thing that really only Sambath, a Cambodian that is trusted by these people – could do.”

'Enemies of the People'
Has the film been screened in Cambodia, and what has the reaction been?

“The reaction in Cambodia has been immense. It has not been screened there yet, but when the film first premiered in the US at the Sundance film festival it was the top news story in Cambodia for about a week, in the newspapers, on the radio. There is huge anticipation for the film. We are currently negotiating that premiere, which we hope to take place in May in Phnom Penh.”