S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

  • 2002
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

Rithy Panh's shattering documentary about the Khmer Rouge's infamous killing center, where at least 17,000 Cambodians were murdered during a four-year reign of terror, has a deep personal significance for the filmmaker: His parents and sisters were all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. The drab complex of unremarkable buildings on Phnom Penh's outskirts now...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Rithy Panh's shattering documentary about the Khmer Rouge's infamous killing center, where at least 17,000 Cambodians were murdered during a four-year reign of terror, has a deep personal significance for the filmmaker: His parents and sisters were all destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. The drab complex of unremarkable buildings on Phnom Penh's outskirts now known by its codename — S21 — was originally a high school, but one year after the Khmer Rouge assumed power in 1975, it became the operating center for the regime's security police. After five years of civil war, the obsessively paranoid leadership of the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea — known ominously as "the Organization" and led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot — began taking Mao's concept of "permanent revolution" to its genocidal extreme, purging the countryside and, eventually, the party itself of "enemies." In a Kafka-esque scenario of arrest, interrogation and extreme physical torture, prisoners were dragged to S21 and forced to confess unspecified crimes against the party, then name their treasonous activities and co-conspirators, perpetuating a cycle that invariably ended on the killing fields of Choeung Ek. Our guide through this hell on Earth is Vann Nath, a painter whose depictions of powerful Khmers Rouges tenuously ensured his survival; Nath is one of only seven prisoners known to have emerged from S21 alive. He returns to S21 — now the austere Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes — to examine the neatly typed "confessions" of executed prisoners and confront three prison guards who, under different circumstances, might also have been their murderers. Without a voice-over filling in the blanks, the film begs a number of unanswered questions. Who were the prisoners of S21? And in a secrecy-obsessed regime, why were these excesses so meticulously documented? Ultimately, the film is less a history of the murderous regime than an examination of a space — physical and mental — where evil was nurtured and put into the service of the state. Asked to go through the motions of his daily routine for Panh's camera, one guard shouts into an empty cell, and it's conceivable that an ordinary peasant could be transformed into a murderous sadist. Later, Nath attempts to explain to these guards the difference between "killing" and "destroying"; when you destroy, you reduce what was once human to dust. The film's final image — dust blowing through the now empty rooms of S21 — won't soon be forgotten.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Rithy Panh's shattering documentary about the Khmer Rouge's infamous killing center, where at least 17,000 Cambodians were murdered during a four-year reign of terror, has a deep personal significance for the filmmaker: His parents and sisters were all des… (more)

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