The film tells the tragic story of Comrade Duch, the repentant killer, as he’s confronted now by evidence of his horrendous crimes against humanity, and by the people of Cambodia who suffered at his hands. The emotion comes from the tribunal footage, the anguish and anger of relatives of Tuol Sleng victims, the tales of horror told by three survivors of Tuol Sleng (Vann Nath, Chum Mey and Bou Meng) together with the interviews of the S-21 personnel who worked for Duch: photographers, guards and interrogators. Damning evidence also comes from footage shot by Ho Van Tay, who in January 1979, was the first Vietnamese cameraman to film Tuol Sleng and who now recalls those shocking images. Nic Dunlop, the Irish photojournalist, re-lives for us his search for Duch: how he found him in a remote area, close to the Thai border, twenty years after his escape from Tuol Sleng and subsequent conversion to evangelical Christianity. The detective story of the search and rediscovery of Duch was told in Dunlop’s book, ‘The Lost Executioner’ and this film travels with the author to revisit places that are important in Duch’s family history.
This is not a history film; it’s the portrait of a man who changed radically, and who, under orders from Pol Pot, massacred or smashed thousands of people; a fiendish Jekyll and Hyde personality. In order to try to understand him we talk to a number of people who knew Duch as a child and teacher or who witnessed his barbarism. We hear also from the Australian prosecutor in his trial, William Smith, from Duch’s defence lawyer Francois Roux, and from the French author Francois Bizot who was imprisoned by Duch, and then released in the nineteen seventies. Today, Duch is the only leading Khmer Rouge figure who admits his guilt and apologizes. Through the horror that is revealed and the grief that is expressed we begin to sense a catharsis taking place in a whole society. We see confrontations in the courtroom between Duch and the victims and relatives. We watch as courtroom images are taken on a monitor into the countryside and to remote villages to show ordinary Cambodians gripped by what is happening. At the center of the story is the enigmatic, formidable figure of Duch, who gives lessons to the court and who claims to have repented and been born again. We hear from Pastor Lapel, the evangelical minister who led Duch to Christ and ask whether his conversion is genuine. The story culminates with the verdict for Duch’s crimes against humanity, torture and premeditated murder. Until this year Cambodian families never dared to talk to their children about the Pol Pot years because they thought they would not be believed. However, the live TV broadcasts of Duch’s trial and the distribution of one million copies of a well-illustrated book on the history of Democratic Kampuchea to high school students throughout the kingdom are beginning to change people’s attitudes. The film ends with images that depict how, through Duch’s story, a whole society is finally wrestling with the tension between reconciliation and justice.