By the end of this movie the names of two men will be burned into your memory, Rob Hamill and Kang Kew Lew AKA, Comrade Duch. One of them is inherently good, the other inherently bad. Both men have a story to tell, both men will stare each other down in a courtroom in Cambodia.
Before I get started, I must write a brief history lesson, for myself, more than anyone else.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge and their leader Pol Pot began a murderous takeover of Cambodia that lasted until 1979. The Khmer Rouge was a communist party that wanted to create a classless society based on an “agrarian economy and rejection of free market”. Anyone who disagreed with the party was taken to a top secret prison called S-21. Of the 14,000 prisoners captured and sent there, 12 survived. It is estimated that over two million people in total died during the regime.
This was a part of history that I was very unfamiliar with. But as I watched the film, it became clear that I could compare it to a part of history that I do know a lot about – the holocaust.
To grasp the full gravity of it, I had to think of it this way:
Pol Pot was Hitler, Comrade Duch was Himmler and the Khmer Rouge was the Nazi party. I turned Europe into Cambodia and turned the Jewish people into Cambodians who disagreed with the communist party. I turned S-21 camp into Auschwitz and there I had it. The rule of the Khmer Rouge was the 1970s Cambodian version of the holocaust.
Brother Number One directed by Annie Goldson (He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan), focuses on one of the few westerners to be captured, tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. It is told through the eyes of Rob Hamill, a famous New Zealand rower and Olympian, whose brother Kerry was captured while on a sailing trip. 34 years after his brother’s death, he travels to Cambodia to give a victim’s statement during the trial of one of the well-known leaders of the Khmer Rouge, 68 year old Comrade Duch.
The film tracks Rob telling the story of his life before his brother was killed and the painful years afterwards. It is devastating to watch and I found myself in tears, time and time again. Goldson navigates the story incredibly well, vacillating between New Zealand and the trail in Cambodia.
Not only does Rob make a statement at Comrade Duch’s trial but he visits with the men who were the guards at S-21 when his brother was a prisoner there.
Examining old documents and reading Kerry’s forced “confession” are poignant moments in the film. Each prisoner was forced to write a confession that stated that they were spies against the communist party. With Kerry’s unique sense of humour, upon writing his confession, he wrote secret messages that he hoped his family would one day read. One particular moment made my heart stop. Kerry wrote about his commander named S. Tarr. This was a reference to his mother, Ester.
Maybe this story affected me so much because Kerry Hamill was a New Zealander. Maybe it was because I had been to his hometown of Whakatane and swum on the same beach. Or maybe, it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a New Zealander. Maybe it was just that he was another human being.
It’s staggering to me, as I am sure it is for 99 per cent of the population, that someone would extinguish the life of another. But for Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, their attitude can be summed up with a single quote. A quote used time and time again to describe this massacre –
“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
As for Rob Hamill and his quest for justice against the man who ordered his brother’s torture and murder, I must use someone else’s words to make sense of Duch’s pathetic excuse of a confession. “There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has the right to blame us. It is in the confession, not the priest that gives us absolution” – Oscar Wilde.
Although it is immensely frustrating that Duch never takes full responsibility for the part he played in murdering thousands of people, on some level I understand why he didn’t.
By confessing only just a fraction, it allowed him to sleep at night. I also believe there is another reason why Duch never admitted his full involvement and leadership in Khmer Rouge. He had become a Christian later in life, and if he had revealed his true crimes against humanity, I think it would be a sin not even God could forgive.