What makes "S21" uniquely powerful among human-rights documentaries is that Rithy Panh managed to bring victims and perpetrators face-to-face. Imagine a holocaust film in which Waffen SS or concentration camp guards talk to survivors or describe their daily routines for the camera. The result is a breathtaking look into the malleability of the human animal and its capacity for evil. It is also a very concrete account of what happened at S21, also known as konlaenh choul min dael chenh: "the place where people go in but never come out."
Panh takes painstaking care to observe the smallest of details. He follows Vann Nath, who survived S21 as party painter, through the abandoned complex as he sifts through the remaining stacks of the bureaucracy that always seem to accompany cruelty on a national scale: regulations for the guards, lists of the denounced, photos of the tortured, and the coerced confessions forced out of the innocent. The bland bookkeeping tells stories of unimaginable terror and pain.
Amazingly, Panh also brought the former guards back to S21.
The most stunning scenes of the film involve the guards reenacting their past. With mechanical voices, the men (mere boys at the time) walk through the cells and shout abuse at the long-gone prisoners in strangely mechanical, hollow voices. In the sickening finale, they describe how they took prisoners away to the mass graves and reenact their executions by club and knife. It is like watching the ghosts of past evil become flesh for the camera.
"S21: The Killing Machine of the Khmer Rouge" is playing at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 5. The film is distributed by First Run Features and does not have a North American release date yet.