Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath's searing doc "Enemies of the People," premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and walked off with the World Documentary Special Jury Prize. Since the win, the film has continued its winning streak by collecting gongs and critical accolades at Full Frame, True/False, One World and Human Rights Watch New York. The film was released last week in New York and runs in Los Angeles from August 6-12 at the Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles.
The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s. Yet the Killing Fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now. Enter Thet Sambath, an unassuming, yet cunning, investigative journalist who spends a decade of his life gaining the trust of the men and women who perpetrated the massacres. From the foot soldiers who slit throats to Pol Pot's right-hand man, the notorious Brother Number Two, Sambath records shocking testimony never before seen or heard. Having neglected his own family for years, Sambath's work comes at a price. But his is a personal mission. He lost his parents and his siblings in the Killing Fields. Amidst his journey to discover why his family died, we come to understand for the first time the real story of Cambodia's tragedy. Co-directors Rob Lemkin and Sambath create a watershed account of Cambodian history and a heartfelt quest for closure on one of the world’s darkest episodes. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]
Co-director Rob Lemkin on what lead into filmmaking and how "Enemies of the People" came about...
I was a musician first. My first film was with Nina Simone and made for $750. Amazingly, you can still buy it on DVD 25 years later. I then made dozens of films with musicians I loved like Chet Baker and Curtis Mayfield. Then I moved into investigative journalism and spent 15 years doing TV reports and historical documentaries. Our current film is like coming full-circle as it’s very independent but with the investigative techniques I learned on the way.
When I was a producer at the BBC I made a film about a man who knew Pol Pot. He told me there was more to the Khmer Rouge than met the eye. Several years later I went to Cambodia with a plan to make a film about the Khmer Rouge on trial and met Sambath – he was my fixer – and found he was investigating the Khmer Rouge from a similar perspective but for him it was deeply personal. So we decided to join forces.
Sambath – my co-director – just wanted us to film his research, ie. the confessions of Brother Number Two (Pol Pot’s deputy) and various Khmer Rouge killers. I knew the film would only work for a general audience if he was both the main character and the prism through which we witnessed these extraordinary confessions. So we had two (at least) aspects to our production – one: his investigation that was underway and that we continued together and two: his story in which he became the subject of my camera.
Brother Number Two’s interviews last over 60 hours and they are extremely complex. Understanding this exclusive take on history took me months of reviewing transcripts in the library. Then the problem was working out how to use them in a film which was attempting to use history in a Shakespearean way - to let the history serve the story and the characters so that the audience could enjoy the film without knowing anything of the Killing Fields.
The film is very personal and yet it deals with huge ideas of history, mass violence and justice. People who are open to critical thinking will love the film – and in fact do everywhere we show it. One problem is it seems a depressing subject, but everyone that comes out of the film feels inspired and energized. That’s because Sambath is an inspiring and uplifting man who keeps smiling in the face of horror and has a very upbeat message for the world. And because it’s a totally character-driven drama it’s a very compelling and exciting film to watch.
Lemkin on films that inspired him while making "Enemy of the People"...
"The Killing Fields" was always in the back of our minds – especially as the onscreen relationship between Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran was not so dissimilar to mine and Sambath’s. It’s great for us that David Puttnam ("Killing Fields" producer) has been such a great supporter of our film.
Other films I was thinking of include "Shoah" (for obvious reasons; my camera pans across the landscape came from that film) and Ivy Meeropol’s "Heir to an Execution" which had a similar balance between rough footage, personal/public history and investigation. Also "Darwin’s Nightmare" for the way in which a small camera witnessing scenes of a quasi-theatrical quality can come to have an epic dimension if set in an imaginative narrative structure.
And what he has in store for the future...
There’s "Enemies of the People Part Two," which Sambath and I are preparing and which is more of a political conspiracy thriller about the political conflict at the heart of the Khmer Rouge featuring some of the same characters but also new people like the men who tried to kill Pol Pot. It’s made from footage we’ve already shot and will be very relevant to the UN trial of Brother Number Two which will start next year. I’m also preparing a short film about soldiers blinded in war which is an Anglo-Polish production (shot in the US) and which is something quite unusual – it’s a remake of a documentary. In this case one made by Kieslowski in the 1970s. Finally, I’m writing a script for a film about a friend of mine who was an Englishwoman who married a man who would become Saddam Hussein’s oil minister, and was ultimately executed by him. Hopefully, it’s another triumph in the face of horror pic.