S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine

"Good"

S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine Review


Sometimes a story's immediacy requires no artifice on the part of the filmmaker: They simply need to be there to capture it. However, over reliance on your story's ability to engage the audience without any assistance can often doom (or at least seriously damage) an otherwise worthy film; the new, extremely worthy, and yet somewhat slight documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine is just such a film.

Serving more as a historical document than a piece of filmmaking, S21 brings two survivors of a Khmer Rouge prison in the suburbs of Phnom Penh back to the prison - now preserved as a museum - and has them talk through their experiences, along with a number of men who were once guards at the camp. As quickly becomes obvious, S21 was actually more of an extermination camp than a prison: during the 1970s genocide that killed over 2 million Cambodians, over 17,000 of them were tortured to death or simply murdered in S21; their stark, black-and-white photographs now line the walls in silent accusation.

Director Rithy Panh - who escaped from a Khmer Rouge labor camp in 1979 when he was 15, after four years of imprisonment - gathered his subjects in S21's eerie, empty rooms for what could have, in more manipulative hands, turned into a therapy session. The prisoners (the only two survivors of the camp that Panh could locate) speak heart-breakingly about the constant torture, how they were forced to confess crimes against the regime they hadn't committed, and denounce dozens of others who were innocent but whose names simply jumped to mind and were likely tortured and made to denounce innocents themselves before being executed. More terrifying, though, are the guards, who matter-of-factly reenact the casual brutality they'd inflict on the prisoners. Their mantra, familiar to soldiers caught in atrocities throughout the ages, is, of course, "But I was given orders." The banality of the horror becomes apparent when one of the guards, describing one particularly arbitrary mass killing, talks about the stink that rose off the corpses which nauseated him at first, but after a time, "became normal."

Where Panh goes wrong with the film is relying solely on these stoic narrators to tell their tales. This is not to say that the material needed tarting up, or dramatization, but the lack of context, of an outside voice, saps the film of desperately needed structure. Although the basics of the Cambodia genocide are fairly well-known, there is plenty more background information which would have helped explain how this particular cog in Pol Pot's infernal machine came about. The film presents us with the human aftermath quite adroitly, but in the face of such determined refusal to accept responsibility, the narrative never quite coheres.

All criticisms aside, S21 is somewhat mindful of an eagerly-awaited museum exhibit on an interesting topic which, on first inspection, turns out to have been poorly put-together. If there were a wealth of fine documentaries to choose from about the Khmer Rouge and the demonic evil they unleashed upon Cambodia, then S21would fare less well. As this is not the case, the film remains an imperfectly realized yet nevertheless important look at the depths to which humanity can sink all too easily.

The DVD includes an interview with Panh.

Aka S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge.



S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine

Facts and Figures

Run time: 101 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 11th February 2004

Distributed by: First Run Features

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 7.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Rithy Panh

Producer: Cati Couteau

Starring: Chum Mey as Himself (Survivor), Khieu 'Poev' Ches as Himself (Guard), Yeay Cheu as Herself - Him Houy's Mother, Nhiem Ein as Himself - Photographer, Houy Him as Himself - Security deputy, Ta Him as Himself - Him Houy's Father, Nhieb Ho as Himself - Guard, Prakk Kahn as Himself - the Torturer, Peng Kry as Himself - Driver, Som Meth as Himself - Guard, Vann Nath as Himself - Survivor, Top Pheap as Himself - Interrogator & Typist, Tcheam Seur as Himself - Guard, Mak Thim as Himself - S21 Doctor, Sours Thi as Himself - Head of Registers

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Murder on the Orient Express Movie Review

Murder on the Orient Express Movie Review

The latest adaptation of Agatha Christie's 83-year-old classic whodunit, this lavish, star-studded film is old-style...

Paddington 2 Movie Review

Paddington 2 Movie Review

The first Paddington movie in 2014 is already such a beloved classic that it's hard...

A Bad Moms Christmas Movie Review

A Bad Moms Christmas Movie Review

Everyone's back from last year's undemanding adult comedy, plus some starry new cast members, for...

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Movie Review

Brawl in Cell Block 99 Movie Review

Filmmaker S. Craig Zahler brought a blast of offbeat creativity to the Western genre two...

The Death of Stalin Movie Review

The Death of Stalin Movie Review

Fans of the film In the Loop and the TV series Veep will definitely not...

Call Me By Your Name Movie Review

Call Me By Your Name Movie Review

Set in northern Italy in the summer of 1983, this internationally flavoured drama is a...

Thor: Ragnarok Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok Movie Review

The most riotously enjoyable Marvel movie yet, this action epic benefits hugely from the decision...

Advertisement
Breathe Movie Review

Breathe Movie Review

While this biopic has the standard sumptuous production values of a British period drama, it's...

The Snowman Movie Review

The Snowman Movie Review

With a cast and crew packed with A-list talent, this film seems like it should...

The Party Movie Review

The Party Movie Review

Comedies don't get much darker than this pitch-black British movie, written and directed by Sally...

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Movie Review

Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) is on his way to becoming the new Woody Allen, which...

6 Below Movie Review

6 Below Movie Review

Based on an astonishing true survival story, this film is subtitled "Miracle on the Mountain",...

Mother Movie Review

Mother Movie Review

Darren Aronofsky doesn't make fluffy movies, and has only had one genuine misfire (2014's Noah)....

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Review

It's been 35 years since Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic, which was set in 2019....

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.