“What I Did Was Criminal… but Serving an Ideology. ”
Duch is a soft-spoken, frail, Cambodian man. He has a bad left hand; he’s missing a finger, and he has a deep, long scar to suggest that his finger didn’t leave his hand without extraordinary amounts of pain. He lives most of his days in a small room with nothing but a bed and a desk, where he pours over his Bible. He will talk to almost anyone who will listen – he seems afraid to ask for forgiveness, although that’s what he wants. Duch won’t ask for forgiveness, but he will tell his story and hope that the listener will turn their mercy upon him.
Most documentaries today serve one of two purposes: to entertain or to persuade. Morgan Spurlock’s adventures into male facial hair, Comic-Con, or product-placement, may have some educational and informative value, but their primary purpose is to engage the audience and to entertain. Other documentaries, like Food Inc or Countdown to Zero, were created to offer a perspective on an issue. While these movies can be entertaining, their chief purpose is to raise awareness about an issue and persuade audience members to a certain viewpoint. Aside from these two kinds of movies, there’s a smaller subgroup of documentaries attempt to act as historical record. Like Shoah, these historical documentaries aren’t necessarily trying to persuade or entertain, but they are trying to make sure the past doesn’t go unforgotten.
Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell is a companion to the documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Both films follow the mass killings under the dictatorship in Cambodia in the 1970’s. Duch (real name: Kaing Guek Eav), was the director of prisons M13 and S21 – places where “enemies of the state” were kept indefinitely to be interrogated, tortured, and killed. Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell attempts to understand the man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Cambodian civilians, and the film allows Duch to explain his side of the story: his rise to power, his role as director of M13 and S21, and his thoughts on the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity.
Almost all of Duch is an interview with the titular character. He is presented with photos, records, and written reports about some of the atrocities that occurred during his tenure as director of the prisons, and he mostly wonders aloud about his past. He seems rather frank about some of the actions for which he and his crew are directly responsible. There are intervening scenes that break up this narrative: a couple of men re-enact an arrest, some picture show (rather gruesome) experiments on humans and nonhumans alike. But at its core, this documentary lives and dies by its narrator: a man with a despicable past.
The actual man, as he is presented today, is a complicated figure. At times, it is not hard to sympathize with Duch – he comes across less like a monster and more like a cold, calculating man that was concerned as much with pleasing his employers as with turning out solid results (whatever the job may be). He claims that he was taken by the radical Marxist ideology, but that he never (or very rarely) had a direct hand in violence, torture, or murder. Some evidence is presented that directly contradicts some of his self-disclosed statements, and this often results in Duch admitting that he has misremembered or intentionally forgotten the past. By the final minutes of the movie, he claims to have converted to Christianity to beg for forgiveness. Whether or not this is an actual prostration or posturing is up to the viewer.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died during Pol Pot’s regime, and this is something that we don’t really talk about much in the United States. It’s not that Pol Pot has been forgotten in the States, but he’s been lumped together (and under) Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao. Rithy Panh’s documentary feels like a twistedly dark Fog of War, where you just can’t believe that this person is admitting his role in something so big, overwhelming, and evil. I’m thankful that not only was director Rithy Panh able to get Duch to talk so much about his involvement with the Khmer Rouge, but he was able to document all of that history will not allow these crimes against humanity to go uncovered.