Bruno Carette's new film, Khmers rouges amers, is the result of 16 years of investigation and interviews with Khmer Rouge leaders and gives an alternative understanding of a brutal history.
Bruno Carette films former KR head of state Khieu Samphan in Pailin province during the funeral of Khieu Ponnary, Pol Pot’s wife, in 2003.
French screenwriter and producer of numerous films about Cambodia, Bruno Carette, has recently joined forces with Cambodian Sien Meta to produce a new documentary based upon testimonials acquired from former Khmer Rouge cadres. The film is the result of 16 years of investigation and contains several short extracts from interviews with Brother No 2 Nuon Chea and the former president of Democratic Kampuchea, Khieu Samphan. The French version of Khmers rouges amers (Bitter Khmer Rouge) will be shown at the Bophana Audiovisual Centre on Saturday. Neth Pheaktra talks to Carette about the film.
Why the film Khmers Rouges Amers?
For us, the tragedy for which the KR was responsible is very difficult to understand if not placed in its historical context. After Chroniques rouge-amer [Carette's first film about the KR period commissioned by France 5 Television network] we decided to produce Khmers rouges amers, a film that takes another angle on this turbulent period - the point of view of the KR.
I have been researching KR history since 1993. I have met with victims of the regime, and I also tried to interview those who have been responsible for this tragedy.
How long did it take to produce this film, and how difficult was it to collect all the information and documents?
It was a huge task. I have been trying to interview KR leaders since 1993, when I worked for TV France 3 on the results of the Untac mission. In 2003 Khieu Samphan, former KR head of state, launched his book and finally agreed to meet me. I also had the opportunity to meet Nuon Chea, former KR National Assembly president, while working on the Barbet Schroeder film Terror's Advocate, 2006.
I spent seven years producing this film. We collected 250 hours of interviews. The editing process took over a year, and we issued two versions of the film - one in French and the other in English.
We realise that [now] this film has to be updated a bit because we finished the editing just before Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan had been arrested. As Duch's hearing is held, we will also have to work on it more.
Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea agreed to speak to you. Was it easy to speak with these former KR leaders?
We interviewed Khieu Samphan twice, around six hours each time.
If we study KR history, I don't think we can talk of the KR as a whole. According to my investigations, the KR united and stayed with Norodom Sihanouk to fight against the Lon Nol regime in the period between 1970-75. But since 1975, it appears that the KR started to separate. I don't believe that Khieu Samphan's plan was the same as Pol Pot's or Nuon Chea's, and we established a kind of confidence with him to explore historical context on the KR point of view.
We have also talked to Nuon Chea but for other reasons. Unlike Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea was a permanent member of Central Committee of the Kampuchea Communist Party (KCP). Nuon Chea told us that after Pol Pot, "it was him, who knew [what happened]".
Archives as well as other testimonies have also been important in our quest for understanding.
How can we talk about the Cambodian drama without mentioning the decisive role of Prince Norodom Sihanouk? Norodom Sihanouk's role is crucial in this Cambodian tragedy. The participation of others (whether they chose to be KR or not) is also important to us. We've tried to achieve a balance on those different points of view as well as to explore the historical context from a KR perspective.
But we felt frustrated that some former KR leaders refused to be interviewed - Thiounn Mumm, for instance, the first Cambodian poly-technician who came back from Paris to serve the KR regime. I sought permission many times from him for an interview. He finally agreed, but on the condition that I would read five books before we meet. The books essentially related to nationalism, however when I finished reading the books, he kept postponing the interview. I regret that Thiounn Mumm did not dare to talk as I'm sure he knows a lot, perhaps too much. At the same time, I'm also very disappointed that Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith declined to be interviewed.
In your film, you presented the view of many former KR including the high leaders of DK. Is it your intention to defend the KR in the film?
Not at all. In 2000, we produced a kind of "academic" film, Chroniques rouge-amer (Red Bitter Chronicles) about the victims of the KR.
Then, it became apparent that revisiting Cambodia's past through the eyes of the KR could bring new elements for a better understanding of history. But we investigated as journalists - not as prosecutors, lawyers or judges. We tried to work objectively. ... Actually, after receiving the agreement from the KR to talk, we couldn't do anything other than listen to them and be honest. I'm not saying that I believe everything that they have said, but I tried to do my job as a journalist. Our film is neither an accusation nor a defense.
As well, this film is not an opportunity to criticise the ECCC, but we've tried to understand the events differently and consider the whole history, not just the period between 1975 and 1979. Of course, we don't know yet how the trial will be handled. While I would rather not insist on this point, what is taking place sounds like a political trial.
Who honestly can pretend to talk about the KR without considering the whole historical context, and not refer to the US, China, Vietnam or Thailand, even France's responsibilities? And what about the role of the UN? Did they not agree that the Cambodian seat be retained in New York by the Khmer Rouge until 1991? At least, it seems to me that Cambodian people need to resolve their historic issues themselves. I'm not very sure that they are all very satisfied with this mixed tribunal, and I have also observed that not so many of them are even aware of the existence of the Extraordinary Chambers.
When we started editing this film, we had the feeling that the hearing might be limited only to the former director of S-21. To be honest, I am still very sceptical about the tribunal. I hope that the UN will not behave like they did in 1993. At this time, Untac had the mission to restore peace in Cambodia. Half of the job had been done with successful elections and the return of King Sihanouk to the throne. But what about the Khmer Rouge and other factions, which were supposed to be disarmed by Untac ?
In Cambodia, everyone knows who defeated the KR and restored peace. That's not only the UN. Cambodians don't need artificial justice. They need to understand their past and honour their victims.
Do you think your film will be screened on foreign television on the occasion of Duch's hearing?
Cambodia is far away. It's a small country, and this story took place 30 years ago. Maybe when the trial starts things will be different? I hope so....
For now, we are very happy that our film has been selected [to be screened] at FIGRA (International Festival of Grands Reportages d'Actualites) and that it will be shown in Cambodia at Bophana Centre on February 21, 2009.
Why do you make films about the KR?
When the tragedy took place in Cambodia, more specifically, when the world discovered what happened here, I was 20 years old. At this time, I worked in a company with a Cambodian girl whose entire family disappeared during DK times. She tried to find some relatives in the refugee camps or elsewhere.... Since then, I never stopped thinking about Cambodian history and raising questions about this human drama.
To me, the questions raised by the KR tragedy, even if it happened 30 years ago, are still a part of contemporary reality. Cambodia was like one big concentration camp, but until 1979 almost nobody cared or wanted to see what was happening there....
Today, "International Justice" wants to sentence the KR. Of course, they have done wrong, they have murdered their own people, destroyed their homeland. And impunity for such acts is an insult to the victims. But just take a glance at the world today! What is happening in Darfur, Gaza and Burma? Who intervenes? What will Iraq look like when the US retreats? What is the difference between what is happening in the world today and what happened in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975?