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Dispatches from the Killing Fields--'The Conscience of Nhem En': A Production Diary

By Steven Okazaki

In January 2008, I spent 13 days in Phnom Penh working on a documentary film about Cambodia 30 years after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Many Cambodians were talking about the upcoming international tribunal, in which five former Khmer Rouge leaders (Pol Pot, never put on trial, died in 1998.) face charges of crimes against humanity for their part the deaths of 1.7 million of their people. A former soldier named Nhem En had been called as one of the witnesses. Sixteen at the time, he was a staff photographer at Tuol Sleng Prison, also known as S-21, where he dutifully photographed 6,000 prisoners before they were tortured and killed. 

It was a difficult production in nearly every way, and I vented my frustration in e-mail reports to Sara Bernstein, the film's supervising producer at HBO Documentary Films.      

The film, The Conscience of Nhem En, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary and was broadcast on HBO in July 2009. The DVD is available November 2 through Farallon Films.


Dear Sara:

First day in Phnom Penh. I drop my luggage at the hotel and go directly to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where most of the film will be shot. I'm unprepared for the experience. It's not just a museum, but the site where thousands of people were tortured and killed. One is forced to consider the worst that humans can do to one another--cruelty beyond comprehension. 

In tiny, two-by-six-foot cells, the prisoners were chained to the floor. They pissed into coolant containers and shit into ammunition boxes. If you spilled a drop, the guards pushed your face to the ground and made you lick it up.

Photographs of the prisoners are on display throughout--startling images of men, women, children, the elderly, even infants, before they were tortured and killed. Most of them stare at the camera, shocked and bewildered. For me, the most disturbing images are of the people who seem unaware of what is about to happen--and reflexively smile for the camera. 


Courtesy of Farallon Films



Six thousand of the photos were shot by the subject of our film, Nhem En.     

Later, we visit the Choeung Ek killing fields outside the city. 

On the edge of the field, there is a huge, beautiful oak tree, which was used to bash babies' heads in. Women were striped, gang-raped, killed and thrown into mass graves.

Our interpreter, Han Ong, tells me about a woman he met who escaped the killing fields. Her Khmer Rouge guard told her he wouldn't rape her, but told her to say he did. A group of soldiers came along, asked him if he had raped her and he said, "Yes." They said, "Okay, it's our turn," and started to pull down their pants. A voice yelled out that a pregnant woman was escaping, and the soldiers rushed off. The sympathetic guard told the woman to run. She slipped into the water and hid for several hours.

The associate producer, Singeli Agnew, goes off with the camera to shoot some b-roll, and I hang out with Han. He was 7 years old during the time of the Khmer Rouge. He points to a palm tree and tells me he survived because of his ability to climb the trees and collect the sugar from the palm flower. He smiles and notes that palm sugar tastes better than any other kind of sugar. We talk about his family and his reunion with his mother after the war. It takes him a moment to realize tears are running down his cheeks. He says, "I'm sorry," then turns away and disappears for a half-hour.

I watch people, mostly tourists from China, Japan and Europe. They take off their shoes and walk the four or five steps up to the shrine where hundreds of human skulls are kept. As they slip their shoes back on and depart, they look stunned. A 20-year-old Cambodian woman prays nearby. She looks up, notices me staring at her and glares back. I realize I've intruded, and I respectfully nod to her. Her expression softens to a smile. Later, walking and driving around the city, I notice the same defiance on many people's faces.


The pre-production work has been frustrating. People who have a lot to say suddenly know nothing when we ask about filming them. Both the government and non-governmental organizations that have offered their assistance seem more interested in keeping an eye on us than helping us. Getting the necessary permissions has been a wild goose chase. We've been sent all over the city, back and forth to the same places, chasing the Minister of Information, the Minister of Culture, the Deputy Minister of Culture, his Excellency somebody, his Supreme Excellency somebody else. I'm not sure if we're not getting results because we were not giving them an envelope with cash or they really don't want to help us.

Corruption and bribery are a way of life. On the street, you see gangsters openly making collections, which the people call "taxes."


We film an interview with a tough, four-and-a-half-foot tall man named Bou Meng, one of four known survivors of Tuol Sleng Prison. He survived because he was an artist. A Khmer Rouge guard came around and asked, "Can anyone paint?" Bou Meng eagerly announced, "I can." So they stopped his torture, which had been going on for 30 days, and handed him a pencil and piece of paper. The guard shouted, "Draw something! If it's no good, we'll kill you." Luckily, they liked the drawing and ordered him to paint a portrait of Pol Pot, the notorious leader of the Khmer Rouge. Again, he was warned, "If it's no good, we'll kill you."

At the end of the day, we walk through a Phnom Penh ghetto. There's poverty like I've never seen--naked children, amputees, a thin man with AIDS lying on a mat, whole families living in an area as big as a full-sized bed with cement or dirt floors and no electricity, just fire. Of course, my camera draws a lot of attention, so I can't film people going through their daily routines.

Instead, I film portraits of several people, asking them to stare directly at the lens, like the S-21 prison photos but considerably more cheerful. To thank them, I ask Han to buy corn on the cob for about 20 street kids. At first, he seems to disapprove, saying, "You don't need to give them anything. They're peasants." But he gets into it when the children start laughing, and he buys skewered fish for them as well.

It's miserable here, but also alive. Crowds of people everywhere--on the street, in cars, on motorcycles and bikes. Everywhere, all day long, it feels like a street fair.

Tonight, we meet Nhem En, the photographer of Tuol Sleng, and a dedicated Khmer Rouge soldier. I was told he wants to be famous and scam money from his experience. Others are less critical. Vann Nath, another survivor of Tuol Sleng, told me, "I met Nhem En. I don't blame him."  

We'll film him at the S-21 prison tomorrow. Later this week, we'll go to his village, a nine-hour trip by car, jeep, motorcycle and foot to a remote jungle area on the Thai border. The area is known as the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.


We had dinner with Nhem En, the photographer. He was happy-go-lucky, kind of childish and a little strange. His reputation seems harsh, but we'll see.


We have to find a new interpreter before tomorrow morning's interview with Nhem En. Han can't do it anymore. The interviews are bringing back his own painful memories--he lost his father, brothers and sisters--and it's overwhelming him. Today, he went blank in the middle of the interview. He just stopped talking. I don't know if he realized it, but I asked him if he was okay, if he wanted to take a break, and he said, "Yes, I need to stop." After a long break, he was still distracted, so we limited the interpreting to just asking the questions and briefly summarizing the responses. Han is normally super cool, on top of everything, so it was unsettling to watch him go through this.


Dear Sara:

We made it through yesterday. Han was upset about letting us down, so I asked him to continue as the production coordinator and also contribute questions to the interviews. I think he feels relieved. 

We talked with several Cambodian/English interpreters but most were educated abroad and sound like snooty Brits or spoiled American college students. I didn't think they'd be a good match for the people we're interviewing.

We lucked out and found a man named Sok Chamrouen. He mostly works as a tour guide, but he's an excellent interpreter. He's easy-going, but professional and doesn't back away from or soften challenging questions. As it is with nearly everyone we meet, he suffered greatly during the time of the Khmer Rouge, and lost most of his family.

Yesterday, all day at the prison, we interviewed Nhem En. He smiled through my questions about what it was like to witness the last moments of thousands of people's lives. At one point, he bristled and said, "What am I supposed to do? Sit around and cry about the past?" 

He lied. He said he was unaware of torture at the prison, but later admitted he heard people screaming all day long. He said that the guards never touched the female prisoners because they would be punished if they did. But it is well known that they regularly and brutally raped the women. In some of the Nhem En's own photos, the young women's faces are swollen from being punched.


Nhem En, subject of Steven Okazaki's The Conscience of Nhem En. Courtesy of Farallon Films



I pressed him hard. His casual tone about the suffering that passed in front of his lens made me hostile. I suppose I wanted him to apologize for his part in the horror. I told him that the photographs he took are cold and cruel, without compassion, and I felt it reflected the photographer. He got angry, threatened to stop the interview, and said we couldn't see any of his personal photos unless we paid him $10,000. I told him we would pay him the same honorarium we paid the other interviewees, about $500 to compensate for their time. Suddenly, he turned jovial again, slapped me on the back, as if to say "just kidding," and called me his friend.


We were set to spend the day in rural areas outside of Phnom Penh filming former Khmer Rouge guards, but our leads turned out to be false.

I'm exhausted. The day starts early, around 6:30, and goes late. 

The production is tense. It appears we're being spied on or, more politely, monitored. When we interviewed Nhem En, there was a man we thought was a bored janitor hanging around. Today, we saw him coming out of DC-Cambodia, the NGO that controls much of the media that flows out of Cambodia.  

More paranoia: Our interview with Nhem En was interrupted by his cell phone four times. According to Sok, one of the calls was from his wife and the three others were from a government minister. He answered, "Yes, Your Excellency," and said, "Don't worry, I'm not telling them anything."

I'm not sleeping well. I think about what I've experienced here and I can't process it. I call home and try to talk about it with Peggy, but the words won't come out of my mouth. Instead, we talk about what's up at home, how Daisy's doing in pre-school. Then I hang up, put my head in my hands and weep. 



On the lighter side:, the food is good--Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes with wonderful seasoning, whole leaves and twigs. Last night, we had a fantastic Chinese dinner. Everything on the menu was on display in front of the restaurant, including the vegetables. You pick what you want to eat--live fish, lobster, prawns, crabs, frogs, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, green onions--and tell them how you want it cooked, deep fried or stir-fried.

Han makes sure we don't poison ourselves. He says the rule is, if it grows above ground it's safe, but if it grows in the ground or in water, it must be boiled or fried.

Although the production has been difficult, we are getting good footage. We shot a lot of strong b-roll material and completed four in-depth interviews with the photographer and the three known male survivors of the S-21 prison. 

Today, we interviewed a man named Vann Nath. Like Bou Meng, he survived because he could paint (the third man, Chum Mey, lived because he could fix sewing machines). Vann Nath was tortured with electro-shock, pliers to his hands and nipples, and beatings. His interview was rich in detail, but detached. Before we started, he said, "I will tell you everything, except I will not talk about what happened to my wife, and I will not cry."   


Courtesy of Farallon Films



DAY 11

Sorry, I've been out of touch.

We found a female S-21 survivor named Chim Math. There is some controversy as to whether she is a true S-21 survivor. No other women are known to have survived. But I walked through the camp with her, into the torture rooms, and I believe her. She has a full life--a husband and children, works as a social worker in a ghetto outside of the city. She said, if she met her torturers today, she wouldn't hesitate, no matter what the consequences were: She would kill them. It was shocking to hear those words from such a gentle person.

It's been impossible finding a Khmer Rouge soldier who will talk. We met Gung Ni, a former soldier who was mistreated by his comrades because he's an amputee (they often shot the badly wounded). He was not involved with the atrocities but introduced us to his neighbor, who had, on previous occasions, admitted his direct role in several executions. Of course, when we arrived he said, "I'm nobody. I didn't see anything. I didn't do anything."

I like Sok Chamrouen a lot. We hang out together while Singeli and Han do the hard work of making arrangements. He's helped me understand some of the history behind what we heard in the interviews. He explained Cambodia's geographic vulnerability to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. He told me about the vicious rivalry between the Vietnamese and Cambodians, how both sides used acts of extreme cruelty to intimidate each other. Before one particular story he asked me, "Are you sure you want to hear this?" I said, "Yes," without thinking. Now the story lives inside me. It is too horrible to share with anyone and I fear I'll never get it out of my head.

The news here is full of violent acts, from political assassinations to domestic disputes, many involving hatchets.     

DAY 12

We spent the day filming in the document room at the museum. I worked with Sok Chamrouen, going over the confessions of prisoners of S-21--meticulously recorded documents written in pink or blue high school essay books (S-21 was a former high school). One farmer was tortured until he gave the names of all the men in his village as CIA agents. He probably had no idea what the CIA was.   

DAY 13

This morning, I heard a heartbreaking story on Radio Free Asia. Early in 1975, the Khmer Rouge put out a call to Cambodians around the world to return and be part of the country's bright new future. There were around 5,000 Cambodians living abroad at the time, mostly in France--students, business people, artists and foreign service people. Four thousand responded and boarded specially chartered planes, which flew from Paris to Beijing to Cambodia. It turned out to be a ploy to eliminate any interference from Cambodian expats who might speak out or plot against the Khmer Rouge. When they arrived, they were immediately executed. I imagined a young man, studying at the Sorbonne, excited about returning to help his country, then stepping off the plane and realizing the horrible deception. When the radio story ended, I had trouble speaking for a few minutes.

I'm sitting in the airport, having coffee and a sandwich, waiting to come home. I'm reading a report, "Understanding Trauma in Cambodia," given to me by the Center for Social Development in Cambodia, which estimates that a huge percentage of the population--essentially everybody--suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The report states, "The most evident symptom in Cambodia today is fear." They also studied Cambodians in America and found similarly high rates of depression.   

On the first day here, I wrote about the angry faces of people on the streets of Phnom Penh. I was wrong: It's not anger. It's fear.

In our interview with Chim Math, she talked about returning to her village when the war was over. Everyone was shocked to see her; they thought she had been killed. One of the village women kissed her and said, "Life is precious." I think of that and cling to it.  

Steven Okazaki received his fourth Academy Award nomination for The Conscience of Nhem En. He also won an Oscar for Days of Waiting in 1991 and a Primetime Emmy for White Light/Black Rain in 2008.  

© 2009. Steven Okazaki.