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Year: 2003
Director: Rithy Panh
Countries: Cambodia / France
Language: Khmer (English subtitles)
USA & UK: 101 mins
USA Release Date: 19 May 2004 (Limited Release - New York)
UK Release Date: 30 January 2004 (Limited Release)

US Distributor


In Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, S21 was the main "Security Bureau," or detention center. Located in the heart of Phnom Penh, some 17,000 prisoners were tortured, interrogated and then executed there from 1975 to 1979. Only three of them are still alive.

S21: THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE is an attempt to understand how the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea (the Angkar, or Organization) organised and implemented its policy of systematic elimination. For some three years, Rithy Panh and his team undertook an investigation involving not only the survivors, but also their former torturers. They persuaded both groups to return to the actual site of what was formerly S21, now converted into a Genocide Museum, to face their past.

Words cannot suffice to describe what took place there. The implacable and meticulous operation of the machinery of carefully planned murder is beyond our understanding. It is as though the conscience cannot take it in, as if the story cannot be put into words. But the evidence remains - photographs, archives, and the place itself - which bring back images from the past. There is also the memory buried deeply inside the bodies of the former inhabitants of S21, that of gestures and routines, that can spring up out of the unconscious as in a nightmare.

The victims, who have been forced by the law of terror to abandon all points of reference of their former lives, have only bureaucratic traces or the pain of their own scars to remind them of what happened. The former torturers, the ordinary and obscure journeymen of the genocide, those who aided and abetted (out of conviction, blindness or terror), who enabled the everyday operation of S21, have remained alone with their horrific secrets. Asking them to reconsider these murders, helping them to unlock their memories and agree to meet their former victims has been a long and slow process. But were they hoping that speaking could free them from their past? The leaders, those who were truly responsible for what happened, are walled in by their denials of any responsibility. This process does not concern them.

The singularity of the film lies in the confrontation between those who escaped and want to understand, so that they can pass on what happened and protect future generations, and their jailers, who seem to be stupefied to relive the horror to which they contributed. It is necessary for certain things to be said to return to the victims their destiny and their memory. They must also be said so that reflection about the past can help in the construction of the present.

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