A powerful new documentary released in part to help Cambodians prepare mentally for the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal had its Cambodian premiere in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
“Deacon of Death” is a highly personalized documentary about one Phnom Penh woman’s confrontation with the man she says massacred her family and others living in a village in Takeo province’s Tram Kak district during the 1975 to 1979 era.
The movie, which won Best Documentary at the 2004 Dutch Film Festival, is in Khmer with English-language subtitles. It is available on DVD and will be shown at some local health centers and most likely aired on television.
In it, Sok Chea and her friend Chan Theary drum up the courage to journey to the countryside and finally face the man who still casts a pall of fear over Sok Chea’s life.
The film’s climactic scene left many in the audience visibly moved: Sok Chea and a monk confront Mr Karoby, the former party cadre whom she believes ordered the disemboweling and cannibalization of her fellow villagers, in the pagoda where the murders occurred.
“I am still scared of him,” Sok Chea said in tears after the viewing. “I feel a little bit relieved…but I am still angry with him.”
Sok Chea, whose father and mother were killed, described the tortures villagers received at the hands of the communist radicals as punishment for fishing or picking cucumbers.
“Many people are afraid to tell the stories of what happened at that time,” she said. “There are other [guilty men] in the village but they are not heavy like Karoby.”
The film, made by Dutch filmmakers Jan van den Berg and Willem van de Put sparked an emotional discussion at the premiere at Chaktomuk Theater about how Cambodians should best come to terms with the nation’s terrifying past.
Audience member Nhem Vanthan disclosed his own previous temptation to shoot the man he named Mr Soi, who he believes killed his relatives. He angrily recalled seeing a visiting Chinese delegation watch him perform slave labor and asked if China will ever be made to confess its role in supporting Pol Pot’s cultural revolution.
Venerable Chorn Serey Sanoth, one of a group of monks in the audience from Wat Odtanawatey in Russei Keo district said that monks can play a vital role in providing mental health services both to traumatized victims and to killers.
“Karoby made many sins, so he will face his sins one day. But because of some good things he built, he can stay with us, and he is continuing to do good things to make up for the sin he committed,” he said.
Karoby works at a pagoda as a cremation official and as a healer, hence the movie’s title, “Deacon of Death.”
“The Khmer Rouge tribunal may make it difficult for some to accept that those they know to have committed crimes will not be brought to justice,” filmmaker Willem van de Put told the audience. “This movie raises questions such as what can we do to help such people see benefit from this tribunal. What can be done to improve their lives?”
Sean Visoth, secretary-general of the KR tribunal task force, praised the film after the showing saying it will help victims cope. He said the confrontation scene in front of a benevolent monk showed the power of a fair trial in dealing with Cambodia’s past.
“I think the tribunal will be a medicine,” he said.