The Conscience of Nhem En, premiering tonight on HBO at 8:00, tells the story of the havoc - both psychological and physical - that the Khmer Rouge's reign wrecked on the Cambodian people. 1.7 million people died in a supposed effort to seek out CIA and KGB agents within Cambodia from 1975-79. "Very few people were actually guilty," said the documentary's eponymous Nhem En, a photographer who at age 16 took roughly 6,000 photos of prisoners before each headed to a near-certain death. "But each person had to give a name and that person said another name." And in the absurdity of the Khmer Rouge, all those named died.
The story is an important one to tell. Relative to other such human travesties, the Khmer Rouge is not often discussed, (at least in the world I have experienced). Perhaps the silence is the result of an innate sense of guilt Americans feel hearing the tale. The United States was not uninvolved in Pol Pot's rise to power - a point the film drives home within the first half-minute with the subtitles, "During the Vietnam War, the United States carried out massive, covert bombing of Cambodia, contributing to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge." But whatever the reason the story is not discussed, The Conscience of Nhem En is a certain step to clarity, and in that sense it is worth watching.
The premise of the film is powerful because the reality of the Khmer Rouge is horrifying. Do not watch it if the aim is to see something uplifting that makes you think positively about humanity. This documentary shows the worst of our species, our unfathomable ability to do harm to our own. Skulls are shown, stored in containers en mass. Eerily uniform headshots show thousands of Cambodians headed to their near-certain death. And perhaps most terrifying is the interview with Nhem En in which he unapologetically defends his taking of photos rather than trying to save his muses: "Well, it's human nature... People do what they have to do to survive."
The film seems grey, almost hollow; only in the very beginning and end does music lighten the heavy footage. There are extended moments of silence that leave time for reflection, and the silence is quite uncomfortable. But the discomfort is, I assume, intentional. Watching former prisoners walk through the halls of the Tuol Sleng Prison should not be an undisturbed experience.
The narrative is not told as an emotional one but rather as a straight history; if anything, it is too cold. Men and women list off the family members they lost to Pol Pot. One man lost his parents and all six of his siblings. Another woman lost nine children. No one was untouched. But as they list off the depletion of their families for the camera, none cry. It has become a fact of life for them, and their matter-of-factness when listing off their losses is disconcerting, unnerving. However, to the film's credit, the abysmal is coupled with human resilience. The documentary concerns itself with the past, but it is deeply rooted in the present and the emotional carryover that results from the Khmer Rouge.
Did I enjoy watching The Conscience of Nhem En? No. But I am glad I saw it.