Q&A: Raya Morag on the Connection Between Post-Holocaust Studies and Cambodian Perpetrator Cinema

The book offers front-row seats to a new genre of post-Holocaust global documentary film, with innovative approaches to the study of genocide, trauma, and gender.

~Ben Kiernan, author of The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79

The year 2020 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary to the end of World War II. To commemorate this milestone, Raya Morag, author of Perpetrator Cinema: Confronting Genocide in Cambodian Documentary, reflects on the connection between post-Holocaust studies and Cambodian perpetrator cinema in today’s Q&A.

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Q: Does your book Perpetrator Cinema: Confronting Genocide in Cambodian Documentary emanate from World War II, the Holocaust, and the Age of Testimony?

Raya Morag: My book recognizes and suggests analyzing the recent social-cultural-psychological shift from the “era of the witness” to what I term the “era of the perpetrator.” The era of the perpetrator is defined by the rise of a new twenty-first century phenomenon—perpetrator cinema, which is cinema that deals with a genocidal (or other mass killing) event through a focus on a perpetrator (and/or collaborator) figure as the main protagonist/interviewee of a documentary.

Q: What is new and unique about post-genocide Cambodian perpetrator cinema?

RM: Far beyond Claude Lanzmann’s paradigmatic, though inevitably partial and vague, representation of Nazi perpetrators in Shoah (1985) and the new wave of perpetrator documentaries created around the world in these first decades of the twenty-first century, Cambodian perpetrator cinema proposes—for the first time in the history of cinema—a direct, non-archival, face-to-face confrontation between the first-generation survivor and the perpetrator. This extraordinary encounter (with both high- and low-ranking perpetrators) is enabled by the intimate horror of the Cambodian genocide being an autogenocide, in which the Khmer Rouge murdered a quarter of their own people. It can occur only because of the horrific neighborhood prevalent in post-1979 rural Cambodia, where perpetrators live among their former victims and still exert power over them. Almost unimaginable in post-WWII Europe, the most conspicuous characteristic of this encounter, which I suggest to think of a duel, is thus its (explicit or implicit) transformation of power relations.

Q: What exactly is documentary dueling?

RM: Taking post-Holocaust activism as a paradigm, although a few of the most well-known Nazi hunters were concentration camp survivors (most notably Simon Wiesenthal), they were not filmmakers. The documentarists of Cambodian perpetrator cinema are driven by the hunt and the revelation of historical truth; they rewrite this truth via their confrontations with “willing” perpetrators. In most of their films, they also feel compelled under the perpetrator’s gaze to present their own (partial or full) testimonies. This exceptional situation is a result not only of post-genocide circumstances in which the whereabouts of high- and low-ranking perpetrators are unknown, but also of the filmmakers’ multiple subject positions: they are survivors of the Pol Pot genocide as well as docu/history-activists and the perpetrators’ interviewers. The image of the perpetrator, meanwhile, is precise: a real-life figure mostly depicted through their defeat or upcoming “defeat” at the Khmer Rouge tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea/ECCC) who is confronted by the director.

This extraordinary form of what I call documentary dueling offers new conceptions in regard to the major questions that still haunt post-Holocaust research and practice and that have become part of the legacy of the twentieth century. I contend that, during the second half of the twentieth century, genocide studies and related fields of research, overwhelmed by the indecipherability of the Holocaust and continuing difficulties in bringing Nazis to trial, produced one of the major enigmas of the twentieth century: the “ordinary perpetrator.” Based on lengthy interactions, Cambodian perpetrator cinema poses new questions, such as whether this documentary dueling will become a “civilizing” process for the perpetrator.

Q: Can you give us some examples of perpetrator documentaries that present the dueling you describe?

RM: Encounters with the high-ranking perpetrators are revealed in films such as director-survivor Thet Sambath and his British co-director Rob Lemkin’s Enemies of the People: A Personal Journey into the Heart of the Killing Fields (2009). After a ten-year quest across rural Cambodia, in 2001 Sambath ultimately located Nuon Chea, the chief ideologist of the Khmer Rouge, prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea, and “Brother Number 2” (second-in-command to Pol Pot). After developing a relationship and interviewing him over the course of three years, Nuon Chea finally admitted to Sambath (and Lemkin) for the first time that he had been involved in Pol Pot’s decision to kill their Cambodians compatriots.

In Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011), director-survivor Rithy Panh presents a dueling dynamic based on refuting the perpetrator’s lies. Hundreds of hours of interviews with Kaing Guek Eav (nicknamed Duch), Pol Pot’s chief executioner and former commandant of the infamous detention and execution center Tuol Sleng (S-21), eventually show that after escalation of the duel, it is a transformation in power relations that is at stake rather than Duch’s (failed and partial) confession.

Films such as Lida Chan and Guillaume P. Suon’s Red Wedding (2012) and Neary Adeline Hay’s Angkar (2018) present confrontations with low-ranking perpetrators.

Q: Do you regard post–Khmer Rouge Cambodian perpetrator cinema a transitional justice cinema, aimed at healing a post-traumatic society?

RM: My analysis suggests that post–Khmer Rouge Cambodian perpetrator cinema is first and foremost a cinema of survival that keeps the wound open. It is neither a transitional justice cinema nor a reconciliatory one, but—being the voice of the dead by giving voice to the perpetrators—rather a corpus that above all foregrounds a new epistemology. Discussing, among others, Jacques Derrida’s conceptualization of forgiveness and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry’s conceptualization of resentment, the new approach I call “un-vindictive moral resentment” has implications for cinema’s ability to forge non-hegemonic and nonconsensual ethics. I suggest delaying what is considered an urgent need to prevent genocide through reconciliation and other transitional justice processes, in favor of moral resentment that puts forward both the survivors and the victims. Moral resentment thus becomes a way to distinguish how evil might be experienced, symbolized, judged, and finally incorporated into a system of ethics.

Q: In sum, what is the contribution of Cambodian perpetrator cinema to Holocaust, trauma, genocide, and cinema trauma studies?

RM: The new form of testimony, the duel, and the conception of moral resentment mark a new phase in relation to world cinema’s representation of genocide, as well as to genocide studies and related fields of research’s formulation of perpetrators. Finally, on a broader scale, since perpetration is a tragic feature of the human condition, I conclude that perpetrator studies teach us a new way to analyze genocide and its aftermath not only as a counter-discipline to victim studies but also as a reflection on the complex intertwining of the two disciplines in the twenty-first century, revealing the new challenges faced by spectators of the perpetrator era.


Read another Q&A by Morag on Cambodian perpetrator cinema and the #MeToo movement.

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