A Cambodian witness

Confrontation is the structure of Rithy Panh’s movie ‘S-21 the Killing Machine of the Khmer Rouge’ (2003). The Cambodian filmmaker brings together survivors of S-21 and some of their former guards. About 17,000 people were tortured and killed at the Phnom Penh-based S-21/Tuol Sleng prison. Only few survived, mostly thanks to their painting and sculpting skills as they were recruited to make portraits of Pol Pot.

One of them, Vann Nath, accepted to meet with the guards. He is an emblematic figure amongst survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. His paintings, based on what he saw himself in S-21 and what other people described, are displayed at the Tuol Sleng museum. Locating the guards was not so difficult, Rithy Panh explains. He found biographical information in the Tuol Sleng archives and traced them back to their home villages. The fact the whole movie team was Cambodian proved crucial. The perpetrators, who were not eager to talk, understood that they would not be left alone and the team would come again and again (Hervieux and Devanne 2004). Striking sequences of ‘S-21’ show the guards re-enacting their work routine: walking through the cells, shouting at the prisoners, fastening handcuffs and shackles. For Rithy Panh, re-enactment is not conceived within an emotional framework. He considers that body memory completes and extends the spoken word. These are learned, instilled gestures, ‘one does not do anything no matter what … because otherwise the machine would not work’ (Hervieux and Devanne 2004). Watching them thus helps clarify the functioning of the killing machine, the way it de-humanised victims and perpetrators. ‘S-21’ contributes explanatory and documentary material on Democratic Kampuchea, and affect must be kept at distance: ‘Contrarily to psychoanalysis, I did not want feelings. Above all I do not want to introduce feelings that could bias the movie. My film is only a cinematographic work, yet it produces witnessing’ (Deslouis 2004).

Producing witnessing: it was what Vann Nath did again at the ECCC trial on June 29, 2009. Whilst he was testifying, images of his paintings were projected on screen. The judge Lavergne emphasised the outstanding work of memory accomplished by Vann Nath (paintings, book on S-21, participation in documentaries and workshops) and asked why it was so important to him to testify in court. In his answer, Vann Nath stressed that he had decided not to follow the path of civil action, the only way in his view to retain the power of testimony: ‘I think it is not a only a personal issue, all Cambodian are concerned. Thus, I did not want to institute a civil action. However, if the court wants to listen to me as witness, I am ready to testify. Often people who institute a civil action seek for compensation. I do not seek for any.’ (Gée 2009a, b, c). What did Vann Nath seek, in his paintings and in court? For Rithy Panh, ‘Nath wanted to bring the other to testify so that facts are not misinterpreted or erased. The work of memory is not complete until the perpetrators take part in it… What Nath wants from the perpetrators is not that they rot in jail but that they tell S-21. He needs the speech of the other so that the memory of S-21 is complete’ (Bopha 2008a, b). For Richard Rechtman, it is such attempt that certainly makes Vann Nath the first witness who does not bear witness from the place of the dead, but leads the ‘other’ to speak: the perpetrator. The psychiatrist sees in such endeavour a new path for victims in Cambodia. The survivors may finally talk about themselves and the defunct (i.e. peaceful memory of a person remembered as she was when she was alive). And it is now to the perpetrator, not to the victim, to bear witness to the crime.