Bophana (dir. Rithy Panh, 1996)

Photo from Michelle Nijhuis:

Filmmaker Rithy Panh’s passionate story of the Cambodian national tragedy is told through a documentary centered on the enduring love of two of its victims. Panh, who was interned in a Khmer Rouge labor camp before finding refuge in France, returned to a Cambodia traumatized by a massacre that saw the obliteration of a good quarter of the population by another part of the same population. It’s hard to find the right word for the atrocities, but in terms of scale, the killing fields were both the Holocaust and the Stalinist purge.
Hout Bophana also known as Seda, a young Cambodian from Kompong Cham, is an employee in a humanitarian organization in Phnom Penh, and she is one of nearly 2 million who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). Brutally executed at the age of 25 in the killing fields of Choeug Ek in March 1977, she suffered the same fate as thousands of other victims; knocked unconscious and then had her throat slit in front of pits already filled with corpses. That wasn’t the worst part of her ordeal. She endured six months of torture and interrogation in the “S21 center”, now transformed into a Genocide museum.
“S21” is headquartered in a school in the capital, Tuol Sleng where thousands of pages of “confessions”, as well as a pile of love letters that the Khmer Rouge extorted from Bophana are kept. These missives served as the evidence for the Khmer Rouge to apprehend Bophana. They were originally hunting down her lover Ly Sitha, a former monk turned Khmer Rouge cadre.
The letters express Bophana’s anguish at suffering the fate of those who cannot fit the classification by the Angkar; one must either be a worker or a farmer. The “bourgeois”, very broadly defined as anyone connected to the ancien regime; painters and poets, anyone caught singing a frivolous song or wearing a pair of glasses, was to be annihilated. But the Khmer Rouge was a complex killing machine that was extremely leftist while also paradoxically conservative in its harsh censure of all forms or signs of deviant sexual behavior.
Decked by the ghastly mugshots of the condemned, the Genocide Museum perfectly illustrates how victims were reduced to criminals first before being robbed of their individuality. Families have not only been broken, its members were turned against each other. There is a violence in the images that is unspeakable and painful to look at. Bophana’s love letters tell us that in a country submerged in total terror, choosing to express love can be a heroic act. Writing letters endangered both Bophana and Ly Sitha’s lives but like Romeo and Juliet, they’d rather choose death than oppression. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, would fully conceive of the magnitude of state-sponsored massacre—this time of Indonesia under Soeharto—as theater. Rithy Panh precedes Oppenheimer in that respect. The dramatic confrontation between Heng Nath, a painter who survived S21, and one of the ex-kapo of the center stage was caught by his camera entirely by chance. A slight man who smiled like he was incapable of torture recalled the massacre candidly.. The scene reminds us that the killing fields required the participation of several men like him, who in obeying orders of their superiors redefined what Hannah Arendt calls the concept of evil; where human beings became superfluous, turning them into “living corpses who lack any spontaneity or freedom.” Hand on the shoulder of his former torturer, the painter points to his depiction of tortures suffered by himself and his companions, asking him each time: “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” As if, having the kapo confirm what he already lived through and painted about, he was reassured that he did not distort the truth for the many others who can no longer talk about it.