one New Zealander, a Canadian, and a British subject sailing through Asia, straying
off course became a capital crime. It
was their profound misfortune to anchor within the territorial waters of
Cambodia while the country was held in the inhuman grip of the Communist Party
of Kampuchea, or the Khmer Rouge as they would subsequently be known. In 2007, Rob Hamill had the opportunity to
testify on behalf of his late brother in the first trial of a Khmer Rouge
official for crimes against humanity.
Annie Goldson followed Hamill’s quest for justice, or at least a measure
of closure, in Brother Number One (trailer here), one of a handful
of must see films at this year’s typically uneven 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.
film’s title carries a rather odd double meaning. Pol Pot, the Robespierre of the nationwide
genocide, was dubbed “Brother Number One” in Communist propaganda, whereas
Kerry Hamill was the first of three brothers.
Charismatic and athletic, the elder Hamill brother left New Zealand in
search of seafaring adventure. The 1970’s
still felt like the 1960’s for him and his mates, who were largely oblivious to
the horrors underway in Cambodia.
Stuart Glass was killed during the attack on their small yacht, which was
probably a small mercy. Hamill and the
British John Dewhirst were captured and transferred to the notorious Tuol Sleng
prison, commanded by Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. “Comrade Duch.” In his own words, Duch’s prisoners were to be
“smashed.” This entailed torture, the
extraction of a false confession, and an agonizingly slow execution.
he prepares his “Civil Party” statement, Hamill visits the Tuol Sleng Genocide
Museum and talks to the handful of survivors, getting a painful sense of his
brother’s final months. He also
interviews several former Khmer Rouge officials, who are not exactly
forthcoming. More satisfying are his
meetings with Dewhirst’s sister and his brother’s girlfriend, bonding through
their shared grief.
it is an intensely personal story, Brother
vividly establishes the scale and ferocity of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of
terror. The walls of victim photographs
at Tuol Sleng speak for themselves. We do learn a bit about Duch, the subject
of The Bookkeeper of Death (recently
seen on PBS World), but Rob Hamill is appropriately granted the floor
throughout the documentary. Frankly, it
is quite amazing how well he keeps it together as he confronts the ghosts
haunting his family.
Olympic rower at the Atlanta games, Rob Hamill is indeed a compelling POV figure. He certainly puts a human face on the nearly
inconceivable tragedy of so-called “Democratic Kampuchea.” Yet, the documentary never feels manipulative
or exploitative. Goldson wisely stays
out of the picture, resisting the temptation of putting any sort of explicitly personal
stamp on the film. Nor are there moments
of quiet observational slack. Brother has a compelling narrative,
which Goldson and her co-director-dp Peter Gilbert and co-editor James Brown
hew to quite tightly.
Number One clearly
illustrates how vicious ideology can be.
It also reminds viewers how one murder can devastate an entire
family. As for resolution, that is
another matter entirely. That is indeed
why Brother Number One is a timely
and important film. One of three highly
recommended films at this year’s New York edition of HRWFF, along with Salaam Dunk and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, it screens this coming Tuesday, Wednesday,
and Thursday (6/19-6/21) at the Walter Reade Theater, with Goldson and Hamill
in attendance all three nights.
Labels: Comrade Duch, Documentary, HRWFF '12, Kerry Hamill, Khmer Rouge, New Zealand cinema