Foreign Policy Blogs

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2004)

“The unbearable past.”
That is how survivor Vann Nath describes the time he was imprisoned, tortured, beaten, and almost starved to death in Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia in the late 1970s.
Director Rithy Panh, who himself was held in a labor camp for four years, strips the story to its essence.
[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

This documentary, if it can be called that, has no narration and precious little information about Cambodia under Pol Pot. It is almost entirely set in the empty schoolhouse that was used as a torture chamber known as S21.
The protagonists are asked to show how they acted then and what their thoughts were at the time. Nath asks former guards and torturers how they could have committed the atrocities that happened.
They seem reluctant to answer but mostly say it was because they were boys – some only 13 or 14 years of age – and would have been tortured and killed themselves for disobeying orders.
Nath is one of seven survivors of S21, where as many as 17,000 people were killed. Of that seven, only three remain alive and only two took part in the film.


He does not let his former tormentors off the hook – he tells them flat out he does not want to hear “I was only following orders.” The psychological wounds are still fresh and Nath doesn’t know how to heal them.
About a quarter of the nation’s population of 8 million people died during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.
“S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” is available to rent.
Murphy can be reached at: [email protected]



Sean Patrick Murphy

Sean Patrick Murphy is a graduate of Bennington College, where he majored in politics and Latin American literature. He has worked for Current History magazine, Physicians for Human Rights, and Citizens for Global Solutions (formerly the World Federalist Association). He lives outside Philadelphia.

Areas of Focus:
Cinematography; Independent Films; Documentary;