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by Garon Cockrell
Duch, Master Of The Forges Of Hell DVD Review
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Aug. 15, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Duch, Master Of The Forges Of Hell is an intriguing documentary
about Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who became the head of the S21 prison in
Phnom Penh, where more than twelve thousand people died.
Title cards at the
beginning set up the backdrop for us: “In
Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime caused the death of
approximately 1.8 million people, representing a quarter of the population of
Cambodia.” Those numbers are staggering. I didn’t have a lot of prior
knowledge about these events, and I could have used a bit more information at
the beginning of this documentary to ground me. But even without that, I was
very quickly sucked into this film.
The documentary focuses
on interviews with Duch. He is confronted with documents and photographs during
the interview, and comments quite candidly about them, and about his
involvement. He also identifies interrogation officers in the old photographs,
and many of them look incredibly young. Mixed in is quite a bit of black and
white footage. It’s provocative and helps to set the tone, but none of the
footage is ever precisely identified. It helps with atmosphere, but not so much
with information.
Early on Duch says, “I joined the revolution to serve my country
and my people. I owed it to my parents.” He talks about using children – “middle-class peasants or poor peasants
–at S21. “I’d make them watch and
interrogate people. The youngest took care of the rabbits.” Even this is
spoken so candidly, and so casually. The children were not educated, but were
loyal to him. He certainly had no soft spot for the young, as he says later, “The enemy’s children had to be destroyed.”
Duch was in charge of
training at the prison. He trained the others on how to interrogate prisoners.
He told them not to think of the captives as human beings. Whoever was arrested
by the Party must be considered an enemy. Interestingly, he found the
illiterate ones perfectly willing to kill. The educated ones were less willing.
In one of the film’s many
completely engrossing and horrifying moments, he reads from a report on an
interrogation from 1977: “I decided to
torture the suspect.” He reads the description, which includes electrocution,
and this: “We made him swallow three or
four spoonfuls of shit.”
He says he never conducted interrogations himself, not
due to any moral high ground, but seemingly out of a fear of not being able to
get results. But then a man who was a guard at the prison who is also
interviewed for the film says he saw Duch interrogate a prisoner. And Duch is
confronted with the footage of that interview. Duch then says he interrogated
only one person, and he describes that interrogation.
We never see or hear
those conducting the interviews, only Duch himself, and this has a somewhat
eerie effect, as it really makes it his film, like he’s in control of his
story. We’re never able to get too far away from him (though of course we’d
like to). Plus, he says things like, “I’d
like to speak of my school teacher,” which seems to indicate he has the
power to change subjects, as if this were his film. It’s a very interesting
approach. (Regarding his school teacher, he learned she was at S21, but he was
afraid to go see her.)
At one point Duch says he
has tended to think of himself as innocent. Because he was part of the police,
he believes the crimes belong to the government (a government which he notes
was recognized by the UN, and had a seat at the UN until 1990). But he thinks
differently today. Toward the end he says, “What
I did is criminal, but I was serving an ideology. I was ordered to commit these
crimes.” This is an interesting point, and it’s this type of thought that
allows all sorts of atrocities to happen. It is what allows a soldier to feel
okay about killing, when of course in reality it is still murder.
A title card at the end
tells us, “In 2009, Kaing Guek Eav, aka Dutch, was the first Khmer Rouge leader
presented before the Extroardinary Chambers with Courts Of Cambodia.” (Yes, the
title card has spelling mistakes – “Extroardinary” and “realease” – which is a
shame, because it leaves you with the impression that the film is a bit
sloppy.) Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The DVD contains no
special features.
Duch, Master Of The Forges Of Hell was directed by Rithy Pahn. It was
released on DVD on August 6, 2013 through First Run Features.

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