In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, a film crew recreated some of the regime’s most horrific acts in the capital. Forgotten for decades, the feature has finally been subtitled in English
The place is Phnom Penh, 1979, immediately following the fall of Pol Pot. A grainy film shows a Czechoslovakian doctor walking through the debris around the deserted Central Market.
Amid piles of shoes is a grandfather clock, evidently left standing in the street since the city had been evacuated four years earlier.
He winds up the derelict artefact of a lost time and a chime rings out.
Viewers would be excused for believing they’re watching genuine footage of Phnom Penh days after the city’s liberation.
In fact, the Czechoslovakian-Cambodian production was made after the Vietnamese had occupied the city – but only just.
Nine Circles of Hell will be screened with English subtitles for the first time on Sunday at Meta House.
Nico Mesterharm, founder of Meta House, said the film served as testimony to Cambodia’s darkest days.
“You could say it’s the Cambodian answer to the Hollywood production The Killing Fields,” said Mesterharm, adding that he believed it was the only surviving Cambodian feature film from the 1980s.
The film, directed by filmmaker Milan Muchna, follows a similar formula to Roland Joffe’s more famous counterpart.
A Czechoslovakian doctor arrives to Cambodia in 1969 and falls in love with a local actress.
The two get married, but are separated during the chaotic 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh.
The film’s timeline alternates, with the action moving between the main story arch and the protagonist’s return in 1979 to search for his wife.
But unlike The Killing Fields, which was shot in Thailand, Nine Circles of Hell was filmed entirely in Cambodia. Phnom Penh neighbourhoods, which were still sparsely populated at the time of production, were emptied to give the appearance of the evacuated city, while scenes of Khmer Rouge cadres marching through the streets were filmed on the same boulevards that the actual communist fighters had advanced on a just few years before.
As Phnom Penh had changed little aesthetically since 1979 – the dilapidated city remained mostly unrepaired until the arrival of the UN in the early 1990s – production consultant Mao Ayuth, who now serves as a secretary of state at the Ministry of Information, said it was easy to capture the era’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere.
“The situation was favourable to us, with all the ghost houses and the capsized ships still in the city – all we needed to do was decorate some stuff to make it look more real,” he said, adding that his main job was modifying the Czechoslovakian-written script to add authenticity.
“I tried my best to help them to show what exactly it looked like in that era,” he said, adding that filming brought back memories of his own grim experiences.
Atrocities depicted included the evacuation of hospitals on the day of the city’s fall, the deadly conditions of labour camps and forced marriages.
Perhaps most disturbing is the film’s depiction of Tuol Sleng.
Shot at the prison, the brutality of S-21 is brought to life with disturbingly accurate portrayals of bleeding, emaciated prisoners, all shot inside the rooms where the torture actually happened.
The movie was a local hit at the time, Mesterharm said, with the movie regularly shown on state TV.
Although the intended audience was primarily Cambodian despite the Czechoslovakian involvement, it was screened at Cannes in 1989 in the Un Certain Regard section.
Though well remembered among the old generation, it fell into obscurity – it took four years for Mesterharm to track down a copy from the Ministry of Information.
“The recreation of empty Phnom Penh is somehow stunning. The film is not the best shot or best acted film in the world, but it’s a document and some of the scenes look so real – because it was a state production they could just seal off whole areas.”
Leang Chanrith, a retired obstetrician at the Khmer-Soviet hospital who played a supporting role as a colleague of the protagonist, said the movie was one of the best ways to convey the horror of the Kingdom’s darkest years.
“I’m happy to have it serve like a documentary for the younger generation, because it’s real. Everyone, from the actors to the crew, knew the reality of the killing fields firsthand. It’s the only one of its kind,” he said.