Conscience of Nhem En, The

In “The Conscience of Nhem En,” which was nominated for the 2008 Best Documentary Short Oscar, director Steven Okazaki revisits an horrific chapter in Cambodia's history.  HBO2 will show the film throughout July.

During the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, 16-year-old soldier Nhem En was instructed to photograph thousands of men, women and children as they passed through a processing center on their way to death.  The portraits he took bear witness to the unspeakable suffering and loss endured by the country. 

As is known, the U.S. carried out covert bombings of Cambodia, contributing to the rise of Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, which sent nearly the entire population into forced labor camps and was ultimately responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people. 

In the capital city of Phnom Penh, men, women and children were sent to Tuol Sleng Prison, known as S-21.  Upon arrival, prisoners were registered and photographed, usually seated with hands tied behind their backs.  They were then tortured and interrogated about their involvement with United States or Russian intelligence organizations before they were killed.  In the photographs, some appear oblivious to what is to come, but most seem to know they are facing death.  Approximately 17,000 died at S-21, and only eight prisoners are believed to have left the facility alive.

As the title indicates, “Conscience if Nhem En” explores issues of conscience and complicity.  One of the witnesses in the subsequent war crimes trials was Nhem En, a 16-year-old Khmer Rouge soldier who took about 6,000 of the photographs in 1977-1978.   He speaks about his involvement with the killings: “People do what they have to do to survive.  I guess it’s a matter of conscience.  The photographer’s job is to take photographs.  There was no choice.  What was the choice?  To die?”  He feels he should get credit for documenting a human side to the genocide, saying, “If I hadn’t taken those photos, if it weren’t for me, no one would know or care about Cambodia.”

Mixing interviews, on-location footage and vintage photographs, the film tells the stories of three S-21 survivors:  Bou Meng, an artist who was kept alive to paint portraits of leader Pol Pot; Chum Mey, a mechanic who could fix machinery; and Chim Math, who doesn’t know why or how she survived.  The film also reveals what appears to be a disturbing lack of remorse felt by Nhem En, who charges himself only with obeying orders.

Almost every family in Cambodia can claim to have lost a close relative to the Khmer Rouge.  An intimate look at the country’s ongoing struggle to rise above the past, “The Conscience of Nhem En” highlights a troubling fact about Cambodia today:  Many of the people who carried out these crimes remain unpunished and unrepentant.

Steven 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 are “Unfinished Business” (Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature) and “Days of Waiting” (Peabody winner and Oscar winner for Best Documentary Short).

The movie was produced, directed, shot and edited by Okazaki; associate producer, location sound and additional photography, Singeli Agnew; production coordinator, Han Ong; interpreter, Sok Chamrouen.  For HBO:  consulting editor, Geof Bartz, A.C.E.; supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.