Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh’s new film is aimed at educating young Cambodians about one of the most notorious men in the kingdom’s history – a man responsible for up to 20,000 people being brutally murdered.
The new film, “Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell”, is about Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch, and it made its debut yesterday to an audience of 300 students.
Duch was in charge of a Khmer Rouge facility called S-21, which is better known these days as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Yesterday’s screening of the film took place on the seventh anniversary of Duch’s sentencing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the international court in Phnom Penh tasked with holding senior leaders of the brutal regime to account.
Seven years ago Duch was given a life sentence in the court, which is officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), for his role as the chief of S-21, where people were brutally tortured until they confessed to crimes and then taken away and killed.
Estimates of those who passed through S-21 and were killed vary from 12,000 to 20,000, and there were only a handful of survivors.
“Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell” is a collaboration between the ECCC and the Bophana Audiovisual Centre.
The film, which runs for almost two hours, is based on interviews with Duch and others involved in the torture and murder of prisoners at S21.
Award-winning filmmaker Rithy Panh said he wanted to make the movie about Duch because he was interested in what made the man tick.
“I wanted to know how Duch could order people to hurt others, as an educated person and a teacher,” he said. “I wanted to understand his conscience and how he could do that.
“I met him several times for more than four hours and we talked face to face with each other.”
In the film, Duch describes Communist Party theories and political ideologies, explaining how he trained his subordinates to torture and murder prisoners at S-21.
“I wanted to show that we still don’t know where most people killed by the regime died, like my parents,” said Mr Panh. “They were buried without their names.
“I make this film not out of anger, but to dedicate to the people who died and pay my respects.”
The 300 students were silent as they watched the film and the footage of Duch attempting to explain why he committed his crimes. Many who followed Duch’s court case said the mass murderer showed little sign of any remorse during the trial. Yin Yit, a student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh who attended the screening, said she was shocked by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I felt very scared when seeing Duch confess his crimes of ordering so many murders,” she said.
Khmer Rouge tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra said the film will provide vital information to young people.
“In the past, people heard only the descriptions from the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but now they can hear directly from one of the perpetrators,” he said.
Duch originally ran a similar Khmer Rouge facility in the countryside before the fall of Phnom Penh and many say he honed his skills for extracting confessions both there and in Prey Sar prison, where he spent time before joining the Khmer Rouge.
The majority of the people Duch and his staff tortured in S-21 were accused of being spies for the CIA or Vietnam, and most had no idea who or what the CIA was. The cruelty inflicted on them by Duch and his men resulted in most people confessing to simply put an end to their suffering.
In the early days of S-21, those who confessed were killed in the former school and their bodies were dumped in the empty houses surrounding it. As the torture and killing continued and Duch ran out of places to put the bodies, a new site was found on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. That place was Choeung Ek, commonly known as The Killing Fields.
In an effort to educate young Cambodians about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, this week the Bophana Audiovisual Centre also released an app for smartphones.
Many youths know little about this part of their country’s history because family members who survived are reluctant to talk about the horrors they went through.