“The Conscience of Nhem En,” by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Okazaki, is scheduled to air HBO2 throughout July. The half-hour movie, made on location in Cambodia, received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Film in the 2008 Academy Awards earlier this year, and debuted on HBO2 July 8.
Nhem En was a 16-year old Khmer Rouge soldier assigned to photograph thousands of men, women and children who faced certain torture and death at Tuol Sleng, a Phnom Penh high school converted into a nightmarish prison/interrogation center, now a museum. There, under Pol Pot’s rule from 1975-1979, 17,000 Cambodians were registered and photographed at Tuol Sleng, suspected of being involved with U.S. or Russian intelligence organizations. Eight survived their imprisonment.
Nhem En’s photographs/mug shots are a sobering reminder of the Cambodian holocaust, En’s lenses capturing the haunted stares of victim after victim, forced into a special chair facing En’s camera. The prisoners’ eyes reflect the terror of knowing their fate: unspeakable pain and horror just steps away from the chair, where the screams are coming from.
Okazaki’s excellent and quite beautiful documentary puts these portraits of death front and center as Nhem En himself, now middle aged and robust, defends how he did the job he had to do in order to survive, pointing out that because he performed his duties, there is documented proof of the crimes against humanity.
“If it weren’t for me,” says En defiantly, “no one would know or care about Cambodia.”
“The Conscience of Nhem En” features wonderful Cambodian sights and faces, as well as heart-wrenching interviews with three of the eight known Tuol Sleng survivors. Their memories remain as vivid and painful now as when the genocide occurred 30 years ago, resulting in the deaths of 1.7 million people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Until recently, no efforts succeeded in bringing leaders of the regime to justice. The current tribunal might be, unfortunately, a classic example of “too little, too late,” and because -- as filmmaker Okazaki points out, “Cambodia’s future is tied to how it resolves its past” -- that future is uncertain indeed.
Okazaki’s previous HBO films include the Emmy-nominated “Black Tar Heroin”; “Rehab”; “The Mushroom Club” (Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Short); and the Emmy winner “White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Among his other credits: “Unfinished Business” (Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature) and “Days of Waiting” (Peabody winner and Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short).
Like the body of Okazaki’s impressive work, “The Conscience of Nhem En” is both relevant and enlightening, honest and revealing. Recommended viewing!
SHOWTIMES for “THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN” on HBO2 (all times ET):
July 13th at 5:30 pm, 18th (10 am), 21st (8:30 am); 23rd (noon); 26th (6 am) and 30th (3:30 pm)