S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine revisits the most extreme Communist regime to ever decimate a society—nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population was killed during the 1975–1979 Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Rithy Panh’s compelling documentary, first shown here during the 2003 New York Film Festival, focuses on the regime’s S21 “security bureau,” a high school turned detention center in the middle of Phnom Penh where 17,000 prisoners were processed and only three lived to tell the tale.
Panh, who escaped Cambodia in 1979 and lives in France, documents two of the survivors—one a painter who kept his life by making portraits of the guards and now, in fantastical detail, paints the atrocities he witnessed—and, most powerfully, brings them together with men who had been their jailers. The former guards, some of whom were as young as 13 when they stoked the killing machine, explain that they were in a state of terror as well. “If you were victims,” a survivor asks, “what does that make the executed prisoners?”
Taking a strategy from Holocaust documentarian Claude Lanzmann, Panh stimulates memories by directing his subjects to demonstrate how things were done. Re-enacting—or reliving—the particulars of their once daily routines, the guards seem weirdly gung ho. Perhaps it’s a sort of exorcism. (One former victim asks the dead to help remove the bad karma.) However, when the guards describe how they sexually abused women prisoners or killed others after harvesting their blood with the help of doctors, they seem like former zombies—the denizens of Cambodia’s long night of the living dead.
In their madness, the Khmer Rouge kept detailed records. S21 is now a museum, and the walls of its former offices are covered with hundreds of photographs of victims gazing out like reproachful ghosts. S21 is understated and unforgettable; in its modest way, this movie is as horrific an exposure to evil as Lanzmann’s Shoah.