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S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

November 10, 2009

In his masterpiece, S21: the Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), Cannes prize winner Rithy Panh brings together former torturers and survivors of the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh (code named S21). S21is a tour of the site by those who remember it as a working machine in which 17,000 people were killed. Through meticulously staged re-enactments, the former ‘staff’ of prison guards, torturers and executioners go through the motions of their daily routine in the now empty rooms and corridors – they shout their orders, place phantom keys in phantom locks, shout ideological threats to absent prisoners, slap the prisoners in the face – all with an exactness too banal to be called precision; it is recursive, routine. The guards run through each motion in its proper place, yet the rooms are nearly empty, the crowds of murdered prisoners evoked only by their absence. The perpetrators’ re-enactments are witnessed by the few prisoners to survive S21, including the painter Vann Nath, who has spent the last thirty years trying to remember life (and death) at the prison through his paintings — a labour to memorialise that stands in stark contrast to the perpetrators’ mechanical repetition. Vann Nath and his fellow survivors demand answers from their torturers, who respond with excuses, chilling stoicism and apparent remorse.  The perpetrators find it hard to talk about their past; it brings on headaches, dizziness. Perhaps conscience is overwhelmed, but this repetition, this perpetual rehearsal appears to be the very operation of repression – repetition being the polar opposite of working through.

from the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities website

Part I

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Part II

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