Filmmaker Rob Lemkin’s most famous relative is the late Raphael Lemkin, a Polish attorney who spent his life crusading against mass murder and who invented the term “genocide” to describe what the Nazis had done to the Jews, including 40 members of his family.
Rob Lemkin never knew Raphael Lemkin, a distant cousin. But the elder Lemkin’s legacy has proved a motivation for the filmmaker’s work, notably his documentary “Enemies of the People,” an exposé on the Cambodian genocide that claimed 2 million lives during the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. Co-authored with Thet Sambath, the groundbreaking film — which culminates with a confession by Pol Pot’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea — is short-listed for the Academy Award and has received a Writers Guild Award nomination.
“We went from village to village looking for individuals,” Lemkin said of his search with Sambath for lower-level peasant executioners. “I felt I was with people who had repeatedly looked into the faces of people they were killing. It was utterly chilling, but also inspiring that they were willing to be so open about their deeds.”
The movie is also the personal story of Sambath, whose father was stabbed to death in the Killing Fields and whose mother died in childbirth after being forced to marry a Khmer Rouge leader. An orphan by 9, Sambath became a journalist specifically so he could seek out and query the kinds of people who had destroyed his family. His most fervent mission was to gain the confidence of Nuon Chea by repeatedly visiting the octogenarian in order to elicit a confession. Sambath was so obsessive about his work that his newspaper career languished, and his wife and children were sometimes left without money for food.
Lemkin’s dedication to the project was also obsessive, stemming from his own family’s experience, he said during an interview in Los Angeles. The conversation turned back to Raphael Lemkin, who put everything else in his life on hold in order to convince the United Nations to declare genocide an international crime. The work took years and proved exhausting: Just three days after the U.N. finally voted to adopt the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Raphael Lemkin became gravely ill and collapsed. When hospital doctors queried him about his malady, he said his condition was “genocide-itis.” When he died in poverty in the late 1950s, only seven people attended his funeral.
“My grandmother was very active in the Kindertransport,” Rob Lemkin continued of his connection to the Holocaust. “And my father was very much haunted throughout his life that another holocaust could happen in Britain — a nightmare that lurked in the shadows for him as a sort of brooding threat. I, myself, was very frightened by photographs of concentration camps as a child. There are images in ‘Enemies of the People’ of dead bodies and piled bones that are similar to the images I saw through the keyhole when my parents were watching late-night films about the Nazis. I think that was definitely a motor to keep me going on ‘Enemies of the People,’ because the work was quite tedious and grueling.”
Lemkin met Sambath in September 2006 when Lemkin traveled to Phnom Penh to make a film on Cambodian genocide following news that a United Nations-backed war tribunal was preparing cases against Nuon Chea and others. Initially, he hired Sambath as a translator and “fixer” to help him secure interviews, but when he discovered that the Cambodian journalist already had access to Nuon Chea, the two men decided to collaborate.
Their goal, according to Lemkin, was to “peel back the so-called ‘mask of evil’ to reveal the human beings who committed these terrible crimes.” The resulting interviews are both chilling and heartbreaking: One peasant demonstrates with a plastic knife how he pulled back the heads of prisoners – in such a manner that they were unable to scream – and slit so many throats at once that his arm ached, and he had to switch to stabbing victims in the throat.
An elderly woman recalls how the swollen, piled-up bodies made hissing sounds as they decomposed in mass graves, causing rainwater to “bubble as if it were boiling.” Several executioners admit to drinking the liquid from human gall bladders, which they believed was a medical elixir. Echoing the language of the Nazis, they say they were only carrying out orders, and would have been killed had they refused.
When the Cambodian war crimes tribunal got word of the confessions, officials demanded that Lemkin and Sambath turn over their hundreds of hours of videotapes. “We refused,” Lemkin said. The two had promised interviewees their testimony would be used only for historical purposes. And a promise is a promise, even to a mass murderer. As a result, former executioners are continuing to speak to them, and, last year, a historic teleconference took place among several perpetrators and survivors now living in Long Beach, Calif. The plan is for another such conference to take place at the Museum of Tolerance in 2011.
The film has been described as a Cambodian “Shoah,” albeit without the hidden cameras. “But I see Sambath as quite different from [a figure like Nazi hunter Simon] Wiesenthal,” Lemkin said, “because Sambath believes reconciliation is not only desirable but possible, and every action is dedicated to that end.”
Lemkin does see parallels between Sambath and his famous cousin. “Raphael Lemkin waged an incredibly lonely, one-man campaign to get the word ‘genocide’ enshrined into international law, and in fact after that finally happened, he was found [exhausted] in the basement of the United Nations building, having about given up on the idea that the world would take it seriously,” Rob Lemkin said. “He was fighting a solitary campaign against world indifference, which is very similar to what I found in Sambath. The echoes are very real, because Sambath has been fighting alone for a kind of truth and reconciliation commission in his country, and to come to terms with the trauma of Cambodia.”
Oscar nominations will be announced on Jan. 25.