The doctor at Tuol Sleng recounts how he revived torture victims with vitamin C to prepare them for the next interrogation. A man tells how Khmer Rouge indoctrination enabled him to believe a 19-year-old illiterate village girl was spying for the US Central Intelligence Agency. A former guard remembers that he tormented prisoners while he beat and insulted them by promising food and water.
These are scenes from Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh’s “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” an official selection of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival that was completed in 2002 and is showing several times this week at the French Cultural Center.
The film shows Khmer Rouge guards—cogs in the killing machine—and survivors back at Tuol Sleng, also known as S21, the former high school that served as the regime’s main interrogation center, and for most a stop before the killing fields of Choeung Ek.
Sitting in Cambodia’s most infamous building, those who were imprisoned confronted their captors. They ask questions like “How could you have done this?” with an eerie calm.
A few guards apologize. Most remain stonefaced. They were following orders, they say.
One claims he was the victim of an ideology he was unequipped to understand. Several confess to ongoing anguish.
Two survivors of Tuol Sleng, including Vann Nath, who was spared by his captors because of his painting ability, return to discuss the atrocities. Their conversations, filmed in Tuol Sleng’s cells, hallways and offices, unfold with spooky calm.
Rithy Panh, who fled Cambodia in 1979 for France, joined Vann Nath after Monday evening’s showing to answer audience questions. The film, he said, was not made “in the spirit of vengeance” or an attempt to re-create the “impossible reality” of Tuol Sleng. Rather, he said, it was to present a sliver of experience from the prison.