Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh has made his name through his unflinching look at the bloody history of his country under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. After his acclaimed 2003 film about the infamous S21 concentration camp, Mr. Panh now zooms in on its head, Kang Guek Eav aka Duch, whom he interviewed in jail during his trial at the hands of Cambodian courts. It's certainly complicated to look at the aged man in front of us who quotes from Alfred de Vigny and reads Stéphane Hessel and recognize in him the cold, cruel, callous murderer responsible for some of the worst crimes in human history since the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. But that is indeed Mr. Panh's approach: by confronting Duch with his deeds (drawn from official reports and reconstructions), showing him as both man and torturer, he gives us a deeper, more troubling insight into the evil that men do and how it can be drawn out of them.

     Duch has since found God and reneges nothing he has done, preferring to portray himself as a pawn in a larger political game where the choices were not his to make, but his entire argument betrays just how much he was himself a master at playing such political survival games, how absolute the radicalism involved in the Khmer Rouge regime was: "to destroy an old world in order to build a new one", as is said at one point. There are no excuses and Duch does not present any, just a sense of lucid, terrible wrongdoings, of people sliding down that haunting slippery slope beyond simple humanity - and that is also what Mr. Panh's patient process creates, a portrait that is neither pointed-finger accusation nor compassionate defense, but rather a realisation that man and monster are inseparable and that it may be that exact kernel of humanity the root of his evil. As thought-provoking as it is heavy-going, occasionally even stomach-turning in its graphic descriptions and occasional disturbing period footage, Duch is an urgent, necessary historical record that never forgets it is first and foremost a film.

Director and writer: Rithy Panh
Camera: Prum Mesar, Mr. Panh  (colour)
Music: Marc Marder
Editors: Marie-Christine Rougerie, Mr. Panh
Producers: Catherine Dussart, Gérald Collas (CDP, INA, Bophana Production in co-production with France Télévisions)
France/Cambodia, 2011, 102 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012, Culturgest - Grande Auditório (Lisbon), October 21st 2012


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