After arriving at Phnom Penh airport (which has a frightening display of uniforms and brass), I was picked up by a driver who was employed by our hotel. A good-natured bright young man, he immediately informed me that he wanted to practice his English on our journey. That was fine, given my Khmer is almost non-existent so we chatted as he weaved in and out of the flocks of scooters drifting up and down Phnom Penh's boulevards. His economic future, he told me, was in mastering English and becoming a translator.
This belief is widespread: and there is some reality to it. Cambodians do spend many hard hours studying and learning English. For sure, in a city populated by Anglophone well-wishers, do-gooders and business folk, translators are in demand. Apart from the sheer effort it takes to learn another language (and given Cambodia was a French colony, English is not a "natural" part of the country's history), translation is an extraordinary art.
In the ideal world of objective truth and pure facts, some claim that translators must be fully transparent, a neutral cipher, merely delivering up the question uttered. Translators according to this view must have no opinion and no impact on the scene before him or her – be it a business transaction or an interview. The reality of course is so different. Translation is always "imperfect" – words are never identical from language to language, and bring along with them culture, history, beliefs and world-views. And the translators are of course people whose identities are constructed through their language and their history. Cambodia's traumatic past is never far away, framing, filtering and shaping their understanding.
I decided early on as a director to include my translators as characters, given the crucial role they play, their own dramatic and painful histories and my admiration (given my own limited skills) of the linguistic abilities they display. Filming the process of translation also reveals much about documentary filmmaking. Translation slows and staggers the flow of information, revealing the mechanics of communication, miscommunication, comprehension, misunderstanding and cultural difference.
A rhythm is established that we settle into. In Brother Number One, the triumvirate of the translator, Rob, and a subject (sometimes a victim, other times a perpetrator), are all on screen. We see the translator ask the question we, Rob or I, pose. The answer cannot be too long as the translator must absorb the answer, mentally interpret it and relay its content. At times, the translator will ask in Khmer for clarification and a mini-interview, inaccessible to all of us Westerners, will ensue. Throughout this process, Rob scans the faces, reads body language, without understanding the words, keen for information. The roles then switch, with the subject watching Rob's response to his or her answer - at times with apprehension. Time is slowed and waves of emotion, anger, and sorrow can hang suspended, breaking slowly.
Translators can become overwhelmed with empathy for Rob, or, as often their own sorrow or anger rises to the surface. They can become too emotional to continue, or they interject with their own questions, their buried pain rising to the surface. I see them too frequently soften content so that the blows fall off Rob more lightly – they feel compelled to relay answers but also know that they will hurt. While I watch, it makes me reflect on the power, still, of the Anglophone speaker. Despite the world being in a "post-colonial" age, English, known as the "business language" appears to rule. In a country like Cambodia, deeply impoverished but with some real entrepreneurial spirit, the ambitious buckle down with English dictionaries painstakingly teaching themselves English word by word, so they can help those (yes, filmmakers, aid workers, businesspeople) that ironically are supposedly there to help them. I kept thinking, if that effort could be directed elsewhere: to their own professional development, to the acquisition of practical skills needed by their own people, perhaps, we the "helpers" would be less needed.
The BNO team offer our heartfelt condolences to those who have lost family and love ones in the incident.
Our thoughts are with you.
Rob Hamill made sporting history as a New Zealand International rowing representative for 16 years, with accomplishments that include World Championship silver, Commonwealth gold, and a world record on the indoor rowing machine. In 1978, a charter yacht under the command of Rob’s “brother number one” Kerry strayed into Cambodian waters. Kerry was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the Khmer Rouge. Rob has since travelled to Cambodia to find answers for his family and, reaching beyond personal pain, for Cambodia. In July this year he watched as his brother’s jailor was sentenced to 35 years in prison. “I just want to understand him”, says Rob.
As always we all adjusted to jetlag and the heat in record time -- off the plane into our first day's filming. Beautiful plane ride over Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, seeing the low-lying rice paddies. Rice has been so much of Cambodia's story -- from being the ricebowl of Asia to starvation during the Khmer Rouge years. Now there is the incipient creep of factory developments replacing the paddies. Yesterday was full on, filming an artist who was imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, the "model prison" where virtually everyone was executed; Bou Meng is one of five living survivors as is Norn Chanpal who was 8 when the Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. He had a heartbreaking memory of his mother stroking his hair and telling him to look after his little brother -- she was then taken away. He and his brother hid under a pile of old clothes. We are also following the dictum "every Cambodian has a story" which is true -- so are doing brief vignettes of all the people we meet "naturally" in the film . .translators, court officials, drivers and so on. I think, hope, this is working. Peter as always is doing a great job and we are bristling with cameras...
We are finally going back to Cambodia to film the sentencing of Comrade Duch. Out of the five being tried, Duch is the only one who, at least for a while, acknowledged his guilt. He converted from Buddhism to Christianity after the fall of the regime and in fact was working for an American Christian aid organization on the border with Thailand. His new religion allows him to ask for forgiveness, so many Cambodians are understandably sceptical about his new faith, given that at least 14,000 were brutally tortured and murdered at Tuol Sleng under his rule. He has nonetheless provided some crucial information that presumably will be used during the next trial – that of three "Brothers" (and one wife) who were part of Pol Pot's powerful inner circle and who allegedly devised the policies that led to the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians. They are assuming no responsibility.
In the meantime, Tim and I have been editing so that on our return to Cambodia, we can be more focused on the content we require. Our drives are already groaning with over 7 terrabytes filled.
Currently we are discussing the tension between pursuing Rob's emotional journey and the story of the Cambodians. There are a plethora of issues that arise – should one Westerner get such attention when so many millions of Cambodians suffered? Why should he not? He and his family suffered hugely and Rob thinks of the loss of his brother most days. But the Cambodian story is such a painful one, almost unimaginable. Does Rob's story help engage a Western audience and make them more likely to understand one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? It is commonplace to hear visitors to Cambodia end up saying "every Cambodian has a story" – which is very true, and one strategy we will try to follow is to explore the stories of the characters that Rob naturally meets.
The other tension is trying to get a balance between the personal story and the historical context. The roots of the genocide in Cambodia are complicated, involving of course the conflagration that was the Vietnam war – how much do audiences want to know? History seems important – otherwise, it is easy to see the Cambodian problem as something "over there", nothing to do with the West, but of course looking at the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the support of the brutal Lon Nol one can start to understand how a regime like the Khmer Rouge can arise. But can we tell the history accurately without becoming dry and too detailed? Always a challenge.
Kiwi rower Rob Hamill will return to Cambodia at the end of July to hear the verdict in the trial of Comrade Duch, the Khmer Rouge commander of Tuol Sleng prison where Rob’s brother, Kerry, was tortured and killed in late 1978.
Rob’s presence at the Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for the verdict on the 26th July comes almost a year after he testified there as a ‘Civil Party’ representative. Speaking as one of many that suffered losses at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, Rob gave testimony exactly 31 years after Kerry and Englishman John Dewhirst were snatched from their storm-blown yacht. A third sailor Canadian Stuart Glass was killed on the spot. Kerry and John were tortured for up to two months at ‘Tuol Sleng’ (also known as ‘S21’) and forced to falsely confess they were CIA spies, before being executed on the orders of Pol Pot. 14,000 Cambodians met a similar fate at the prison. Rob’s statement, like that of the other Civil Parties, was intended to influence the sentencing of Duch.
Rob believes that the sentencing is crucial to Cambodia’s recovery as a nation: “There is a saying in Cambodia, ‘Transform the River of Blood into a River of Reconciliation’. Nearly two million Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979,” said Hamill. “I only hope that this verdict brings some sense of justice to those who have suffered so much and waited so long.”
Rob’s story is the subject of ‘Brother Number One’, a film produced by Annie Goldson, James Bellamy and Rob for BNO Productions/Pan Pacific Films. The documentary is intended for theatrical and broadcast release in New Zealand and worldwide, and is funded by NZ on Air, TV3, and the NZ Film Commission. Annie, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland who has received multiple awards for her earlier films, is also directing, with Academy Award-winner Peter Gilbert and Kiwi Jake Bryant sharing the cinematographer credit.
The Extraordinary Chamber of the Courts of Cambodia is under joint Cambodian and UN jurisdiction. Former New Zealand Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright is one the two international judges who, along with three Cambodian judges, will decide Duch’s fate. See http://www.eccc.gov.kh/english/ for more info.
Rob Hamill is widely known for winning the first-ever Trans-Atlantic Rowing Race in 1997 with the late Phil Stubbs. He currently works as a motivational speaker, as an organiser of ‘The Great Race’ international rowing event on the Waikato River. He has also been elected to the WEL Energy Trust and campaigns for environmental causes.
One year on and two-thirds of the way through production on Brother Number One. 80 hours of material and counting! The film has taken us to the US, the UK, Australia, around New Zealand and of course to Cambodia – and our plan is to return there once Comrade Duch, the Rouge leader whose trial finished late last year, is sentenced.
Duch was the man – sometimes referred to as Pol Pot’s favourite torturer – that would have sealed Kiwi yachtie Kerry Hamill’s terrible fate. He and his sailing mate Englishman John Dewhirst were killed at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison under Duch’s command (we could put into two of three of the black and white images from TS with the Susan Sontag quote) and it is their story (and Rob Hamill’s journey) of course that forms the central thread of the film. The entire Khmer Rouge regime – almost four years of genocidal rule from 1975-79 by a small group of Khmer ultra-Maoists – would seem almost fanciful if the consequences of that period were not so devastating.
Documentary filmmaking is such a process. No matter how prepared one is, how tightly scripted, reality always intercedes and life reveals itself in all its beauty and its horror. I always think one has to marshall the full armory (to use a military metaphor) of emotional and intellectual decision-making while directing documentary -- understanding, analysing, empathizing, recognizing where a story might be taking you. But producing is also such a complex and overlooked process: a business, an art, managing an ever changing technical landscape, managing people. A bit like being a conductor and keeping everyone moving pretty much at the same speed in the same direction...
Have just recommenced shooting and editing having returned from a whirlwind tour to the US first to attend the American Historical Association conference where my last film An Island Calling was showing (sharing a panel with the lovely Vilsoni Hereniko and Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka), then onto LA where we went to visit the Shoah Foundation Institute, which was begun by Steven Spielberg as an archive of Holocaust testimonies. Shoah’s mission statement is to ‘To overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of the Institute’s visual history testimonies’ and to date they have collected nearly 52,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other witnesses in 32 languages and from 56 countries.
I caught up with old friends and met new ones. Had one of those great mixed restaurant dinners which makes one feel a bit old -- Kiwis living in the US, Americans living in New Zealand, old friends from New York, Peter Gilbert who came over from Chicago and met new people, Abbie, Alan, Ben ...
Modelling ourselves on the Shoah example, we are now doing a series of life stories with “Khmer Kiwis” living here as part of the website that will accompany the film. Chakara and Anna have spent two days filming stories which we will excerpt, attaching them as an extensions to our website, in time making the entire stories available. We will house the master tapes with the Cambodian community here and hopefully this will start a move to accrue more stories for the future, and for the young. Meanwhile, I’m back at the editing bench extending our sample in the ever-ending search for more film funding.
No word yet on when Comrade Duch will be sentenced, which is the time we hope to return to film again.
By Youk Chhang
During the Khmer Rouge period from April 17, 1975 to January 7, 1979, Cambodians walked constantly. They walked from the cities to the countryside, from their villages to distant provinces, and from the rice fields to the battlefields. After January 7, 1979 the survivors of our country's genocide walked again; this time back to their homes.
In 1997, Cambodians began another journey; the journey to seek justice for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. And today, 31 years after the Khmer Rouge regime fell we are taking a giant step along the road to justice.
On February 6, 2006 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) - commonly referred to as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) - officially began setting up offices at the military barracks outside of Phnom Penh. The first trial, Case 001, began on March 30, 2009, two years behind schedule. The case opened with the defendant, former head of S-21 prison Duch (Kaing Geuk Eav), apologizing to victims and accepting responsibility, but ended shockingly however on November 27, 2009 with Duch rejecting responsibility on jurisdictional grounds because he was not a "senior Khmer Rouge leader or those most responsible" as stated in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal Law. The judgment of Duch will be delivered in March 2010.
In late 2010 or early 2011, the most important Khmer Rouge trial will begin. Case 002 will try the highest level Khmer Rouge leaders still alive today: Noun Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, and Ieng Thirith. This trial will be a crucial moment in Cambodia's road to justice because the evidences and analyses brought forth will provide answers to many fundamental questions about the Khmer Rouge regime that survivors had wondered for over three decades.
Cambodia, the United Nations, and several other countries have worked for many years to help us see justice delivered. The United Nations and national governments raised much of the initial $56 million budget for the KRT and stepped in during budgetary shortfalls in late 2008. These governments have also generously funded many Cambodian human rights and international non-government organizations (NGO) that support and monitor the trial process by helping victims file complaints of Khmer Rouge atrocities to the Court, observing and reporting on the activities of the Cambodian government and United Nations, providing counseling to those who suffered during Democratic Kampuchea, and other activities.
Perhaps the most important way that NGOs can help is to work with the Extraordinary Chambers and each other to ensure that the public is informed about the trials and involved in them.
These trials are about seeking justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. These are your trials, and without your participation in them, the Cambodian people will not be able to judge whether the trials are fair, of high standards, and accessible to all.
But how can the people of Cambodia participate in the trials? They are far away and it is expensive to travel to Phnom Penh. Many NGOs in Cambodia are working to make certain that people can read about the trials through magazines and other written materials that are delivered to sub-district and district offices across the country. Others will broadcast news on the radio, and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) is working with TVK and other stations to produce programs that will help educate people about the Extraordinary Chambers.
In the past few years, DC-Cam has also implemented a project which brought 400-500 villagers every month from all across Cambodia to Phnom Penh to visit genocide memorial sites and meet with officials at the KRT courtroom. After this first phase of the Living Documents Project, phase two which began in early 2009 allowed victims to directly attend Duch's trial hearing, participate in KRT educational workshops, and view Khmer Rouge related videos. Afterward, villagers returned home to share with community members during village forums what they saw and learned so that Cambodians have the opportunity to learn about the trials from people like themselves, in addition to tribunal officials and NGO staff. All of these activities have helped villagers understand how the trials work and to become familiar with the tribunal process. For Case 002, DC-Cam will increase its activities and outreach efforts given the significance of this trial.
All of us want to see trials that are fair and just, and for the Cambodian people to participate in them without fear of intimidation or uncertainty. Learning about the tribunal from the written word, radio and television, and from your family, friends and neighbors will help you see that justice can work in Cambodia and that building a more just future for our children can become a reality.
Youk Chhang is the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Last week was the 10th anniversary of the publishing of DC-Cam Genocide Magazine: "Searching for the Truth." With the ministries of Interior and Information, DC-Cam has distributed 1.5 million copies of the magazine to the villagers within Cambodia. This week also is the 13th anniversary of the establishment of DC-Cam.
Back from Cambodia nearly a week now. I think it was difficult for all of us to process what we saw and experienced. Working something like 11 x 12/13 hour days, we had to focus on what was in front of us, ensuring we stayed sensitive to our subjects, adhered to the schedule but remained open to unexpected storylines when they revealed themselves.
And then there is always the practical demands: changing and numbering tapes, charging batteries, making sure there was enough light, finding power sources and so on. The usual demands but in place that had felt like no other. Now the intense focus of production has elapsed I find Cambodia returns in my dreams, my psyche’s attempt to cope, after the fact, with the surreal horrors of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields.
Something most Cambodians have to deal with on a daily basis. That was what struck me – how many stories, untold stories, are out there waiting to be told and how many people we came across that told us of the nightmare that that had been their past. Memories made harder too, because of the lack of accountability for and acknowledgement of these crimes. The past hurts can only ever be very partially salved by the Court process, whatever its outcome.
Rob was amazing to work with, showing courage and dignity at every step. He has always had an ability to express strength of will, along with an extraordinary openness of emotion (often seen as contradictory). The Cambodians we spoke with were immensely grateful for his stand in Court: he was able to express things that perhaps they felt less able to.
There were optimistic moments while filming too, especially working with DC Cam and seeing the multi-dimensional work that they undertaking to try to address the past, from writing the first real history books, through conducting outreach programmes. to attempting to institute reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, plus much more.
There were fun times too, hanging out with Kulikar, our “translator/character” and Vothar, our great “slow and steady” driver who managed to negotiate us through extreme traffic with grace and care. And watching the spectacular display at the stadium in the early evening as forty competing aerobics teams, dancing to separate rhythms, strive for fitness. A soccer game goes on beneath them largely unnoticed while kites and balloons whirl overhead.