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S21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
S21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
Actors: Houy Him, Mak Thim, Ta Him, Khieu 'Poev' Ches, Yeay Cheu
Director: Rithy Panh
Genres: Indie & Art House, Documentary, Military & War
UR     2005     1hr 41min

{Winner! International Human Rights Award, Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema 2004} — {Winner! François Chalais Award, Cannes Film Festival 2003} — {Winner! Gold Plaque, Best Documentary, Chicago Inter...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Houy Him, Mak Thim, Ta Him, Khieu 'Poev' Ches, Yeay Cheu
Director: Rithy Panh
Genres: Indie & Art House, Documentary, Military & War
Sub-Genres: Indie & Art House, Biography, Military & War
Studio: First Run Features
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned,Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 05/24/2005
Original Release Date: 01/01/2003
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2003
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 1hr 41min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 3
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Subtitles: English

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Movie Reviews

Gut-wrenching crimes, shameful confessions
R. ARANT | Lanesville, Indiana USA | 06/03/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Rithy Panh's award-winning documentary, endorsed by Human Rights Watch, will be painful for any compassionate human being to watch. The documentary brings together two surviving prisoners and a group of former Khmer Rouge cadre, interrogators, executioners, guards, record keepers, and the photographer who staffed the infamous S-21 prison where over 16,000 Cambodians were tortured, interrogated, and trucked off to be killed and cast into mass graves.

The scenes were filmed inside the still standing prison and at the Choeung Ek killing field. The Khmer language dialogue is crisply and accurately subtitled in English.

The executioner sits in his home enduring the lecture by his mother, who bemoans the fate of her son, turned into a killer by the Khmer Rouge. She raised him to know better. His father urges him to speak the truth and take responsibility for those he killed.

Former prisoner Chum Mey collapses in tears in front of the prison, unable to speak, as painful a scene as I have ever watched on film.

Interrogators sit holding photos and confessions of their victims and discuss specific cases -- beatings, torture, forcing female prisoners to strip off their clothes, unspeakable sexual violations. Former guards re-enact their prison routines on site, escorting incoming prisoners, monitoring the cells, taking prisoners to interrogation, taking them to the trucks headed to the killing field. Executioner and driver re-enact the execution and burial routine. The former prison staff re-enact political indoctrination and training meetings they attended in the prison, using genuine archival photos and documents preserved by the superb NGO, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which is led by Cambodian-American director Mr Youk Chhang. The interrogators admit "embellishing" the interrogation reports. The prisoners admit "implicating" everyone they knew because that was what the interrogators wanted.

Surviving prisoner Vann Nath sits with the shamed former Khmer Rouge staff to try to fathom what was in their minds when they carried out the atrocities. "There are no more ideals, no more human conscience. We become dust in the wind." One of the final scenes is of dust blowing inside the upper floor of the prison during a thunderstorm.

It is in vogue this very week for some of our leaders to publicly challenge Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, calling them haters of America with ridiculous charges not to taken seriously. God knows the work of these two organizations is intended in part to insure that we never have to sit in shame in front of any human who suffered abuse at our hands or in our name. Documenting human rights violations around the world helps us to keep constantly alive in our minds the stark differences between "freedom-lovers" and "evil-doers." We must operate with the utmost transparency and openness with daily international inspections and demand the same from all of our momentary allies of convenience around the world.

Every American interrogator, intelligence officer, and prison guard and military officer should watch and learn and pride himself in knowing that he is in no way like the interrogator in the film who says, "I was arrogant. I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal."

Every second of our lives, truly blessed and gifted
Subash S L | Chennai, India. | 09/23/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"A different kind of a documentary yet incredibly powerful and moving.

When we were young we were told that after our life on earth we would be resurrected before the God of death. Our crimes, every bit of them down to the minutest detail would then be read out and the punishment for the crimes would then be executed in Hell. Based on the intensity of the crime the appropriate mode of punishment would be meted out sparing no one and most importantly no little sin or crime committed during our earthly life. No would be allowed to die but endure the full measure of his/her punishment. To avoid telling lies or stealing or being dis-obedient a frightening and detailed list of various kinds of punishments were also told to us.

The Khmer Rouge brought a hell worse than this to earth. Their hell defies human imagination. Unlike the hell we used to be told in the stories, at S21 none of the victims knew what crimes they had done in their previous lives or in their present. There is so much talk about Karma in the documentary. The victims were not allowed to die, or even commit suicide. They had to go through torture, then forcibly sign confessions of crimes they never did and then executed for those crimes. So they were looked after to be tortured unto death. They were also told that their punishment would be reduced if they divulged the names of other people. Out of pain and fear of torture victims would name their own kith and kin. The Khmer Rouge had just found another good reason to rope in more victims.

Like another reviewer wrote, these guards manning the prison and indulging in such crimes under the orders of the Khmer Rouge supremos were suffering from some collective mental disorder. Were the perpetrators doing all this out of fear of their own survival in the Khmer Rouge. Like Macbeth after the first murder and the second the rest just seemed like a habit. People were slaughtered like animals. The worst of torture methods performed on them.

The documentary is about the meeting of painter Vann Nath and carpenter Chum Mey, survivors of S21 with the former guards of the prison. Van Nath and Chum Mey were two of the 7 survivors of the 14,000 prisoners who were tortured at S21 and subsequently killed at Choeung Euk. Vann nath himself admits in the documentary how lucky he has been as many painters, some even better than him were executed.

The guards, most of them who were in their teens when they did these crimes look serenely calm but having gone through hell themselves you wonder what is going on in their minds, remorse? regret? Sometimes they seem lost too maybe having realized what they have done and why they could do nothing about it. The enactments seem so natural and automatic as they might have done it ritually a zillion times. Even when Van nath asks them in an offending fashion they reply calmly, but not remorselessly or feeling offended. From deranged minds to minds of calm they look like victims who have been through hell too in the post-Khmer Rouge era. The death cries and screams, blood and the suffering of the victims they tortured and killed will never leave them and will haunt them till their own deaths.

In the beginning of the documentary when the Cambodian song is being played there is a black and white picture of the Cambodians working hard in the fields. It is a pathetic sight of them running around and working. So sad they never could reap the benefits of that labour, whether they worked hard out of fear or for the betterment of Cambodia. Also earlier in the documentary one of the killers (perpertrators of the crime) is shown handling a baby, his own I guess. I was wondering if the
thoughts of killing babies and children ever went through his head or maybe it still does and haunts him as he says he many a time suffers severe headaches and goes without eating for nights. At the end of the film, Van Nath is seen searching through some burnt rubble and picks up a button. How many times would have the victim wearing the shirt or skirt used that button on his/her cherished dress. How many times would have she or he cleaned it, polished it...

An innovative style of documentary making. Highly recommended if you are aware of the Cambodian genocide or better still, if you have watched Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields"."
S21 Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
C. R. Went | Australia | 03/25/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Rithy Panh tracks virtually evry facet of the institution known as Tuol Sleng, or S21, the torture centre in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime. Interviews with some of the few remaining victims are held in conjunction with those of the former guards and torturers. Panh shows the anguish and post traumatic shock experienced by both, and the film's most chilling point is the reenactment by a young guard of his nightly duties in tormenting and controlling the rooms of shackled prisoners. All in all, an excellent study of abuse of human rights under a totalitarian regime."
A Noble Venture.
Bernard Chapin | CHICAGO! USA | 01/29/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)

"There are numerous outstanding elements within this documentary concerning the Khmer Rouge's murder center in Phnom Penh. My problem with the film though was that there was not a broad narrative spoken or alluded to with which to guide and inform the viewer. I would have liked to have seen a good 45 minutes of background analysis here before we joined former (and viciously tortured) prisoners Nath and Chum Mey on their tour of Tuol Sleng Prison. Their encounter with their former guards was both educational, memorable, and disturbing. Nath's observations struck a chord with me. Indeed, this was particularly true when he pointed out that he could not even bring himself to forgive those who persecuted him because none of them appeared remotely remorseful or asked for his forgiveness. He is correct regarding the great majority who eerily and vigorously reenacted their daily tasks at the prison for the camera. These scenes are especially chilling. As with everything in life though there are areas of gray. Former guard Houy is remorseful and admits that the experience ruined him forever. He feels a profound sense of guilt over what he has done but is incapable of communicating it to Nath or Mey. Instead, we hear his anger expressed at the Khmer Rouge and that his past continues to haunt him. S21 was a noble venture, but it moved far too slow and lacked a proper historical introduction in my opinion."