By Laura Reed, M.A. in Human Rights Studies Candidate at Columbia University
“I am deeply honored and moved to be here today, given the opportunity to speak. I realize that this is a privilege made available to a few, especially compared to the numbers of families that suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime.”– Rob Hamill, in the opening statement of his testimony at the trial of Comrade Duch in Cambodia.
Brother Number One, featured at the 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, is a powerful documentary film that explores the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Annie Goldson, this film depicts the personal journey of Rob Hamill as he travels to Cambodia to testify in the recent trial of former Khmer Rouge leader Duch at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal.
A film about this period in Cambodian history, relayed through the story of a New Zealand family’s experience, is bound to raise some eyebrows from the human rights community. Why focus on a Western man’s personal story, rather than a story from the millions of Cambodians who experienced tragic loss and suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge?
In a previous blog post on RightsViews, we discussed the controversy surrounding the Kony 2012 viral video, which was criticized for (among other things) focusing on the personal journey of Invisible Children founder, Jason Russell, rather than the perspectives of Ugandans. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, our fellow bloggers at Wronging Rights pointed out the problem with “awareness-raising campaigns” that put white Westerns at the center of stories that take place in non-Western countries, arguing that “a focus on awareness also requires putting ‘relatable’ figures center-stage. That means ‘whites in shining armor,’ while portraying the communities affected by atrocities as helpless victims.”
Documentary filmmakers often struggle with this question of how to fairly represent their subject in a way that is both accurate and compassionate, and how to get their audience to relate to issues that are far removed from the viewer’s everyday experience. Every once in a while, though, a film comes along that deftly strikes a balance of voices, making the film both relatable to outside audiences and true to its subject. Such is the case with Brother Number One.
Through a series of interviews, Goldson takes the viewer from the present-day trial of a former Khmer Rouge leader back to 1978, when Rob’s older brother, Kerry, was captured by a Khmer Rouge gunboat. Kerry and his friend were taken to Tuol Sleng prison where they were tortured, forced to write confession statements, and ultimately executed. The Hamills did not learn what happened to their son until two years after they initially realized he had gone missing.
The narrative of the film is largely driven by following Rob’s experience of testifying at the war crimes tribunal; however, the director makes equal use of interviews with Kerry’s family and friends to tell the story of what happened; interviews with scholars who are familiar with this history; and interviews with Cambodian victims, survivors, and former complicit Khmer Rouge workers who relay their personal accounts. One of the most striking ways in which Goldson achieves this balance is by weaving in the stories of those directly involved in the filmmaking process. In one scene, Rob is interviewing Meas Muth, the man he suspects is responsible for sending his brother to the Tuol Sleng prison. The translator, Kulikar Sotho, breaks from translating to interrogate the interviewee with her own questions, highlighting how the contested history of this time period still emotionally resonates with Cambodians today.[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/36061921[/vimeo]
Both Goldson and Hamill were acutely aware of the possible issues with using Hamill’s story to shed light on the history of the Southeast Asian country. During the Q&A at the HRW Film Festival, Hamill commented that he was “extremely anxious” during the filming process in regards to how Cambodians would react to a film telling the story of their country, but through the experience of one New Zealand family. He remarked, however, that Cambodians have received the film warmly, in some cases thankful for the broader audience that it would generate, and regard him as a fellow victim.
Goldson was also aware of the potential of overlooking Cambodians’ stories through the focus on Rob’s experience, and took specific care to make sure the end product was balanced in this way. In an interview with a New Zealand magazine, Goldson remarks that she knew there “were always going to be allegations of Eurocentrism from some, […] and there were, particularly from certain sectors of the industry, although interestingly there was no breath of this from Cambodia itself.” Goldson purposefully wove in stories from Cambodians who were naturally part of the film because, as she notes, it “seemed the most seamless way of attempting to address the cultural context of the film, as well as Rob’s story.”
The result of this thoughtful direction is a powerful film that uses personal narrative to explore the broader themes of forgiveness, justice, and the struggle to reconcile with the past.
For more information about the film, visit: http://brothernumberone.co.nz/
Laura Reed is an editor for RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights Studies MA program at Columbia. Her research focuses on issues of transitional justice, human rights documentation, and contested narratives of conflicts.