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Befriending the Khmer Rouge, To Report

The producer of an award-winning documentary that outlines the inner workings of the Khmer Rouge says it took many patient years of work to gain the trust of a senior leader of the regime and his underlings.

Thet Sambath, who co-produced “Enemies of the People” with British filmmaker Rob Lemkin, became the first journalist to extensively interview Nuon Chea, also known as Brother No. 2, the chief ideologue of Pol Pot’s ill-fated revolution.

“Working with Nuon Chea was not easy,” Thet Sambath told VOA Khmer in an exclusive interview. “It was the most difficult of all. He is a secretive person, and once we ask him a question, it is not easy [to get an answer]. I knew from the beginning that working with him would require a lot of time, not just a few months, to get things out of him.”

Nuon Chea, now 83, is currently in detention at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal and is expected to face trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

In “Enemies of the People,” which won a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last week, Nuon Chea explains the regime’s need to “smash” enemies of the nation, whether they were Cambodians or outsiders.

For Thet Sambath, the reporting meant cautious work, and keeping silent about his own experiences, as he sat with the leader of a movement that killed his father and brother. (His mother was forced to re-marry a Khmer Rouge soldier and later died.)

He met with Nuon Chea nearly every weekend, sometimes sitting with him the whole day.

“In the first four or five years, he did not tell me at all about important issues,” Thet Sambath said. “He simply said he did no know, he knew nothing, he had no knowledge about the executions, he had no power.”

At last, Nuon Chea had a change of heart.

“Until one day, he said to me, ‘Nephew, I have observed you for so many years and seen that you are honest, not biased to any party. Therefore, from today on, whatever you want to ask me, just ask me.’ And he said he would tell me all the secrets he had with Pol Pot,” Thet Sambath said.

The two kept their work secret, with the journalist posing as a nephew for the old man’s guards. In 2006, Thet Sambath and Lemkin agreed to produce a film. Lemkin then attended interviews with Nuon Chea.

“I think he’s quite different with foreigners, with Westerners,” Lemkin told VOA Khmer. “He’s quite reserved. He’s quite suspicious. He thinks that they are out there to get him, and of course they are mostly.”

After several meetings, however, “Nuon Chea was very open with me, and I would say almost very warm,” Lemkin said.

By 2009, the two producers had finished the film, in which Nuon Chea says he and Pol Pot plotted to kill party members who they saw as enemies of the people. (Pol Pot died in his home near the Thai border in 1998.)

“They both lived close to each other, so that it would have been easy for them to have a discussion,” Thet Sambath said. “The way they lived was also secretive. For instance, Pol Pot lived in one apartment and Nuon Chea would live in a nearby apartment, and when they wanted to have a secret discussion, they would meet at the back of the house. They both maintained high secrecy.”

In the film, Nuon Chea acknowledges such secrecy, including quiet agreements on major decisions, including the promotion of Pol Pot to the position of party secretary.

Nuon Chea may have seen his interviews as a way to put his story on the record, Lemkin said.

“I think he was pretty much telling the truth in a complete way, because he believed that, and still believes that, really, Sambath is his route to historical affairs and a balanced historical account,” Lemkin said. “I think he knows none of the Khmer Rouge leaders will ever come out good in history. His is one of the most hated regimes of all time, but at least from his point of view he can at least tell the story as he remembered it and as he believed it should be told.”

Thet Sambath was also able to track down lower-ranking members of the regime, befriending them and eventually interviewing them.

“Finding these people was not easy,” he said. “I didn’t just jump straight to the point, asking them if they were killers. My method was to make friends with them first, which took a lot of time.”

The filmmakers say the interviews connect the dots between decisions at the top and executions on the ground. They hope to use more material to create a second film. Their work, they hope, will help Cambodians heal and help others come forward to speak the truth.