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'Enemies' Raises Fears, Questions Among Lowell Cambodians

Thet Sambath, filmmaker of the 'Enemies of the People', talking to former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea.
Thet Sambath, filmmaker of the 'Enemies of the People', talking to former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea.

By the time “Enemies of the People,” an award-winning documentary on the Khmer Rouge, was finished screening in Lowell, Mass., some audience members were shocked. Others wanted a video conference with the subjects of the film, who describe killing in detail.

“I felt scared and shocked to see the film,” said Dorb Reum, an elderly Lowell resident who lost two relatives to the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng and whose grandson helped her walk from the theater. “I have yet to forget such a tragedy.”

A screening of the film, which won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and has continued to earn accolades, was held here on Friday.

The story follows journalist Thet Sambath as he seeks to find out what happened during the Khmer Rouge, by interviewing low-level cadre and spending years visiting Brother No. 2, Nuon Chea.

“My skin-hairs stood on end for fear as I watched the film,” said Chea Phala, who works for the Lowell public school system.

Audience members asked co-producers Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin if they could organize a video conference with the soldiers—two in particular, named Khuon and Suon—who described the killings.

“They want to know more,” Thet Sambath said. “Whether we can organize it or not, I don't know.”

Lemkin said the turnout in Lowell, which has around 35,000 Cambodians, had been one of the best for the film. “And it’s really one of the most moving,” he said.

The screening was held as the Khmer Rouge tribunal moves ahead with trials for four senior Khmer Rouge leaders but is struggling with further indictments.

Some audience members said they thought arrests of people like Khuon and Suon, who describe slitting throats and burying bodies in mass graves, would further frighten other low-ranked cadre.

But for Prach Ly, who lives in California, the men's interviews were as good as a confession. “I believe in justice,” he said. “So we have to try and prosecute every [killer] that we know.”

Stephen Kurczy, an editor at the Christian Science Monitor, in Boston, said the tribunal's first priority was to try the four aging leaders—Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith. More trials of perhaps 14 to 20 senior members could follow, he said.

“And then far, far, far down the list, you have guys like Khuon and Suon, from the movie,” he said. “There are way too many Khmer Rouge who were killers to try and convict them all.”