Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell: Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
Portrait of Khmer Rouge chief provides a chilling historical testimony.

This one-on-one interview with a former Khmer Rouge party secretary explores his tenure as director of two prisons specializing in what we now call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

CANNES -- Best viewed as a companion piece to his 2002 documentary, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Cambodian auteur Rithy Panh once again delves into his homeland’s bloody historical record in Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell. This one-on-one interview with a former Khmer Rouge party secretary explores his tenure as director of two prisons specializing in what we now call “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Composed mostly of talking heads and archive footage, doc’s best bet is fests, public TV and a few specialty distribs following its Cannes premiere.

More formally conventional than S21– which featured a handful of ex-torturers reenacting their crimes within the abandoned secret prison located in Phnom Pneh – Duch consists of a lengthy conversation with Kaing Guek Eav (nicknamed “Duch” for unknown reasons), a loyal follower of the Khmer Rouge who supervised torture procedures in the M13 and S21 facilities, and is currently a serving a 35-year sentence for crimes against humanity.

Giving Duch free reign to narrate his rise to power within the party, spout Marxist ideology and recite French poetry at will, Panh provides what is likely one of the most elaborate discussions with someone responsible for mass genocide, which in this case saw the depths of nearly 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. At once didactic and dismissive, Duch explains that he “had to do the job in the party’s interest, in my own interest of survival,” but denies having tortured the victims himself. When confronted with conflicting testimony from several underlings, he just laughs it off, and then claims that he’s “doing his best to forget.”

Not unlike Hannah Arendt’s classic study of Eichmann, Duch describes a highly bureaucratic apparatus of death, where testimonies culled from tortured prisoners are scrutinized, corrected, and then sent to party headquarters to be examined by defense minister Son Sen and, occasionally, by Pol Pot himself. Although a few convict photos are glimpsed briefly at intervals, the film is most telling when Duch holds up copies of his own handwritten lists of slaughtered prisoners, revealing how an entire life was reduced by the Khmer regime into a single stroke of ink.

Mixing the interviews with black and white archive images of Cambodian labor camps, Panh mostly spares us the grittier footage of mass graves and human remains, allowing Duch’s own accounts of abuse and execution to sink in even deeper.

 

Cannes Official Selection (Special Screenings)
Sales: Films Distribution
Production companies: CDP, INA, France Televisions, Bophana Production
With: Kaing Guek Eav (known as “Duch”)
Director: Rithy Panh
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Directors of photography: Prum Mesar, Rithy Panh
Editors: Marie-Christine Rougerie, Rithy Panh
Music: Marc Marder
No rating, 108 minutes

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