Brother Number One

Profile: Elizabeth Becker

Elizabeth in the field

As a documentary maker, how do you choose your interview subjects? For a film like Brother Number One, which has to make sense of a tangled, painful and complex history, I look for a mix of subjects who have experienced this history, and those who can comment on it. Elizabeth Becker, a Washington-based journalist and historian, is both. I found her comprehensive and accessible book, When The War was Over, while researching and liked it a lot.

Reporting in Cambodia in the early 70s as a twenty-something for the Washington Post, Elizabeth was the first to name Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) in the Western press. Then he was a shadowy figure, hiding out in the forests and gathering strength to challenge the US-backed Lon Nol, who had ousted Prince Sihanouk in a coup. Watching a beautiful land unravel and believing mass-slaughter was imminent, Elizabeth left Cambodia shortly before the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975. The country was then closed. After leaving, Elizabeth found that all she wanted to do was go back.

Eventually she did return, one of three Western journalists invited personally by Pol Pot shortly before he was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979. Subject to a propaganda tour, Elizabeth said it was like witnessing a negative imprint; she had to report on what was no longer there. The cities, the monks, the markets, the schools, the families, all were gone. But she did get to see Pol Pot. He summoned her to his long hall, curtains billowing around him, a handsome madman who spun her his theories.

That night, her colleague Malcolm Caldwell was murdered in his bed, and the night after Vietnam invaded. Democratic Kampuchea, a regime that killed two million in less than four years was now over. “Great place for a journalist”, Elizabeth told me, “terrible place for a human being”.

Video clip: Elizabeth Becker recalls meeting Pol Pot


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