The unusual and long-lasting relationship that developed between French ethnologist Francois Bizot and his Khmer Rouge interrogator Comrade Duch is the focus of French director Regis Wargnier’s new film The Gate. The French-Cambodian production is an adaptation of Bizot’s memoir of the same name, which tells how the Frenchman – who had married a Cambodian woman and had a child while studying local customs, religion and history – was captured by the Khmer Rouge and sent to a prison camp headed by Duch in 1971. As Duch tried to extract a confession from his foreign prisoner, they discussed topics ranging from literature and politics to philosophy and religion. After four months, Duch, satisfied Bizot was not a CIA spy, convinced his superiors to give him his freedom. Duch went on to head the notorious S-21 torture and execution facility in Phnom Penh, and the two men met again in 2003 while Duch was awaiting trial at the Khmer Rouge tribunal accused of crimes against humanity. Post Weekend this week spoke to Wargnier, best-known for his Oscar-winning 1991 film Indochine, while he was in town for The Gate’s Cambodian premiere on Wednesday.
What was it that attracted you to the book?
Really, the very strong relationship and incredible relationship between these two guys. How Bizot saved his life just by being frank, straight, impetuous. Exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. He should be silent, taking acceptance of everything. Not shouting, not talking. He just expressed his feelings so that the guy in charge of proving he was a CIA spy and guilty, that guy young Duch, became more and more dubious and thought he might be mistaken, this guy must be just a crazy French researcher and not an American spy.
The first time I met Bizot, it was about 30 years later and he had just heard that Duch was alive. He felt that Duch had been killed and he was really shocked, and that is the thing that captured me. To see a guy who owes his life to a killer and how to deal with this. Duch has sentenced to death officially13,000, maybe 14,000, people and he saved one man. The French man. And what can you do with that if you’re the French guy and you have been rescued and saved by this guy?
And when they see each other again after years, they don’t take into consideration, at the very first moment, the weight of history and tragedy. They just ask: How is your wife? And yours? And daughter?
Did the chemistry work well between the two leading actors Phoeung Kompheak (Duch) and Raphaël Personnaz (Bizot)?
They were keeping distance. I wouldn’t say that they meant it. I think it was not intentional because it’s part of Kompheak’s character, even to me, to keep distance. And Raphaël didn’t mean to come close to him because there’s no reason for that, and that specific relationship has served the movie because they are supposed to be enemies, which they were not, but they were not very good friends.
What was your main takeaway from the book? Did you feel you learned anything about the nature of humanity from it?
I think it just obliged me to be more convinced of my previous thoughts about the human part of torturers, because this is the great debate since Nazi Germany. Are they still human beings? Yes they are. Of course they are. It might be more comfortable to think they are not human beings, they are just mistakes. Just bomb them and get rid of them. No, they are human beings. You can’t say they are not like us; they are like us. But Bizot was convinced of that.
The Gate will screen again as part of the Cambodian International Film Festival, which runs from December 5 to 10. See cambodia-iff.com for more details.
Interview by Will Jackson.