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Sundance Review: Enemies of the People

By  · Published on January 25th, 2010

No one is doing real journalism anymore. This is something that as a movie blogger, I’m told all the time. Many folks in my industry have no ability or interest in doing real journalism (though there are exceptions, don’t get me wrong). So in the small world of blogging about film, that might be mostly true. But if we draw our lens back a bit and take a look at the world, pushing aside the gossip-hounds and the slew of celeb-fucking shows on television, there is a place where real journalism is thriving. It exists in the world of documentary filmmaking. That is where we find more than just real journalists doing life-threatening investigation, we also find truth.

It is truth that is at the heart of Enemies of the People, from the unlikely documentary team of Thet Sambath, a prominent English-speaking Cambodian reporter, and British documentarian Rob Lemkin. Together, they’ve captured the deeply saddening and profoundly insightful story of Sambath’s journey back in time to explore the heart of the Cambodian “killing fields” of the late 1970s.

A victim of the killing fields – losing his father, brother and eventually his mother to the regime known as the Khmer Rouge – Sambath set out to break down the silence of the Khmer Rouge’s second in command, Nuon Chea, also known as Brother Number Two. For almost a decade, he traveled into the country weekend after weekend, slowly gaining the trust of Chea before eventually reaching a breakthrough. It is a harrowing story of dedication and unflinching determination for a cause, and Sambath is a perfect example of what it means to truly put the truth ahead of one’s own safety.

It is a fascinating story. One that is unfortunately more interesting than the one the documentary presents. At times, the doc meanders around, showing a lot of interviews with secondary subjects, low-level soldiers who participated in the genocide. However, despite the ability of the meanderings to dry out the film’s middle section, they do come full circle in the end in a fairly dramatic way.

The biggest win here is the juxtaposition of beautiful imagery from the Cambodian countryside with the terrifying, deeply affecting subject matter. Together, Sambath and Lemkin capture the current beauty of fields that were once soaked with the blood of innocents. Also fascinating is the portrait they paint of Brother Number Two, now a frail old man. His is a story of the misfortune of power, and the mishandling of such misfortune that lead to a frightening series of decisions. The doc presents him objectively, which is surprising considering Sambath’s deep ties to the genocide perpetrated by Number Two’s regime. That’s a tough thing to accomplish, but they pull it off.

Enemies of the People is an interesting documentary that benefits greatly from such a deeply affecting subject. It is well done on a visual scale, but plods along a bit, losing focus for minutes at a time. However, that doesn’t stop it from bringing it all home with a heartbreaking, quiet sequence in the end that will pierce the emotional barriers of any viewer. If the goal of any documentary is to be truthful, to be insightful and to affect its audience, this one succeeds.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)