Recently, Entrepreneur and I attended the True/False Film Festival. We chose to see the True Life film documentary, Enemies of the People, sponsored by our church, The Crossing. It’s an independent film about Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge régime and the killing fields.
It’s a part of history probably not found in textbooks. It wasn’t covered much in school…everyone was too busy protesting the Vietnam war and wearing POW bracelets. What I saw in this documentary was eye-opening, horrific, disturbing and right up there with the pure evil of the Holocaust. Two million Cambodians died essentially because of two men, Pol Pot and Nuon Chea. Enemies of the People won the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Special Jury Prize for documentaries. And justly deserved.
It’s a story of the amazing journey of a Cambodian journalist, Thet Sambath, and his quest to find the truth behind the killing fields. That sounds innocent enough…not necessarily warranting such praise. What is amazing is Sambath journeyed for 10 years, giving up weekends, family time, money and any personal agenda to create genuine relationships with those responsible for executing the massacres. All his tapes were kept under lock and key for fear of being confiscated. His family feared for his life every time he left.
You see, Sambath isn’t any ordinary journalist. He’s a journalist whose father was murdered for not wanting to turn over his livestock and property to the communist régime. His brother was also killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. His mother was forced to marry a régime officer and died in childbirth, leaving the rest of his family orphaned.
You would think because of this, Sambath would have an ax to grind. Seeking restitution or revenge would be understandable for someone who experienced first hand the horrors of what happened. But that is not the case. Sambath spent 5 years getting to know Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two of the Khmer Rouge; Pol Pot’s right-hand man. Five years! He visited him, ate with him and spent time forging a trusting relationship. Finally, after years of Nuon Chea denying involvement, he confessed on tape to Sambath all that happened and why. Eventually Sambath shared his family’s story with Nuon Chea.
Along with his relationship with Nuon Chea, he also gained the trust of two of the men who carried out the killings. They shared the horrors of life during that time. They also confessed their remorse and guilt at what they had to become to survive. It was evident in the film these men were desperate for forgiveness and redemption from their past. Personal pain was etched on their faces. Pain I’m not sure their souls will ever overcome on their own.
Sambath and British film maker, Rob Lemkin, joined forces and created this powerful documentary. Present during the festival, they made themselves available for some Q&A at our church’s discussion after the film showing.
What struck me was Sambath’s demeanor. He seemed totally awestruck at the standing ovation given by the sold-out audience at the Missouri Theatre. His humility spoke volumes. I don’t know if he’s Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, Christian or some other faith. I do know I’ve never seen grace to this extent ever in my life. Sambath seems to have totally forgiven those responsible for crushing his family. During the film, there isn’t any hint of animosity, anger or revenge.
Sambath Gets Grace. He may not even realize it, but his actions personify what all Christians are called to do with our enemies. So hard to do. Human nature wants justice. Human nature wants restitution. Human nature wants those responsible for such evil, heinous crimes held accountable. But grace is what Sambath extends to those who carried out the atrocities of the régime. Grace and friendship is what he extends to Nuon Chei, one of the men responsible, as he shares meals with the man and his family.
Grace: mercy, forgiveness, clemency, pardon, compassion, benevolence.
Since it’s the Christian season of Lent, I hope we all try and emulate Sambath as we prepare to celebrate the most famous display of grace and triumph over evil—Easter. I hope we can pause and imagine what it would be like to be in the killer’s shoes. Yes, put ourselves in the shoes of the men and women who carried out these sins against humanity. After all, no matter what degree of “badness,” we are all sinners before a holy, perfect God. As Easter approaches, may we truly understand the saving power of the grace of Jesus Christ, and the restitution of our souls He made on our behalf. May we understand it, emulate it, extend it and receive it.
And if you get a chance to see the movie… GO!