Seven and S-21
In 1979, the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia and, in the United States, the motion picture Alien took repugnance to another cinematic level. I had no idea about Southeast Asia, but after watching a promo for Alien, I begged my mother to take me. She did. When the spawn splattered human entrails all over the space cafeteria, I experienced a rush of fear and delight. The film scared the marrow out of my ten-year-old bones, but I left satisfied. The next day I shared the thrill with my fifth grade classmates.
Not until 1982 did I discover Cambodia. My parents subscribed to National Geographic, and on the May cover, a stone face stared from the jungle. The headlines: The Temples of Angkor –Kampuchea Awakens from a Nightmare. The city of Angkor fascinated me, but I could not turn away from the piles of human skulls unearthed. I asked my mother why. She answered, “People commit evil. I don’t know why.”
Years later I visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia, partly to see an exotic country on the cheap, but I was pulled more by the killing fields of Cheong Ek and the mysterious ruins of the ancient city of Angkor. Yet the most vivid memories I have are of the genocide museum at Tuol Sleng and watching the film Seven in a backpackers hostel.
Tuol Sleng is also called S-21, signifying Security Prison 21, and used to be a public school before the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital and declared Year Zero. S-21 became a torture and detention center where over 17,000 people lost their lives. Seven is a grisly motion picture about a fictional serial killer. S-21 is real.
On my first day in Phnom Penh I walked through streets amidst ubiquitous motos, the small motorcycles ferrying Cambodians to and from markets. The tension in the city indicated that political chaos continued. Long after the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, and despite the largest (at the time) UN peacekeeping mission in history, Cambodia’s government remained unstable and corrupt. The struggle for unity had been taken up by a mishmash of political entities under the dictatorial rule of Hun Sen. Diplomacy balanced the desires of Hun Sen with the political aspirations of Prince Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy’s benevolent but suppressed Cambodian People's Party, as well as remnants of the Khmer Rouge that still laid mines in the countryside out of a vile madness. Orange and white banners, written in capital letters and broken English , cried: THE MORE WE FIGHT THE MORE WE LOOSE! WE ARE UNITE D WORKING FOR PEACE! I LOVE MY LIFE, AS YOU LOVE YOURS! PUT DOWN THE GUNS, TAKE UP THE DHARMMA! SPILLING BLOOD IS NOT WAY TO PEACE!
I followed the map in my travel guide, turned off Monivong Boulevard, a few blocks before Mao Tse Toung (that’s how they spell it in Phnom Penh) Boulevard, at the corners of 113 th and 350 th, and saw a sign in Khmer, French, and English:
“Tuol Sleng” Museum of Genocidal Crime
The intersection of these two streets is not paved, and the sign is partially hidden by vendors ’ tables and the scraps of clothing they hawk . Motos line one side. If you travel north up 113 th you will see, to the west, a nondescript building that looks like an abandoned hospital, school, or dormitory. This is S-21. In front, wild grass suffocates the earth, and behind loom concrete walls enclosing the museum .
On the ground floor is a hall with hundreds of black and white photographs of victims , taken by their captors, before execution . Most victims are communist cadres, fallen out of party favor , and their families. One photo shows a woman and her baby. In another room there are skull s in glass cases, remains that comprise an ossuary-like map of Cambodia, disassembled in 2002.
More photographs , taken by the Vietnamese shortly after they invaded Phnom Penh, show Cheong Ek, the Killing Field, a few miles outside of Phnom Penh where most of the victims of Tuol Sleng are buried . Still more witness the last fourteen who died in the prison, manacled to their beds. Nearby hangs e quipment used to severe fingers and tendons.
After visiting Tuol Sleng I returned to the Cloud Nine Guesthouse , a travelers’ hostel and mosquito haven on the Boeng Kak Lake . Two dollar s a night bought a room with a shared bath and access to a community area where marijuana fumes swirled amidst wisps of smoke spiraling upward from mosquito coils. This became my sanctuary as I contemplated S-21 and emptied can after can of Angkor Beer. A television hung from the ceiling over a slightly lopsided pool table surrounded by worn couch es. A Scandinavian couple sat, paying partial attention to the screen as they braided each other ’s blonde hair into dreadlocks.
Seven began. Kevin Spacey portrayed the serial killer, and artistry directed: a man forced to slice off a pound of his flesh, the evisceration of a prostitute, six victims in all, and a fetus, before Kevin Spacey’s character orchestrated his own death. The movie ended, and I stared through the haze and out over the water as dusk darkened the opaque brown surface of Boeng Kak. The lake became black jade.
Seven had made the sadistic touchable and accessible. But S-21? Excluding the Khmer people and those close to the genocide, the nightmare of Cambodia must be discovered anew over and over again. In 1984 a British film crew shot The Killing Fields, an attempt to portray the graphic nature of Cambodia. The movie is a true narrative of the experience of Dith Pran, who worked for the U.S. Embassy when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, and who, when forced to remain, witnessed atrocity. For the consideration of the viewers, the filmmakers did not want to show the full depth of human barbarity. The Academy Award winner Haing Ngor, a survivor himself, played Dith Pran. Both Pran, who later became a journalist and human rights activist, and Ngor, felt that the movie, despite proselytizing a sane message, failed to show the true nature of the Khmer Rouge. Movies covering parallel tragedy, like Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda, bring attention to wide-scale human rights atrocities and resurrect dark stains in history, yet also set boundaries. They do not satisfy the thirst we have to see humans commit evil. They modify and tame. For some, they awaken curiosity, and remind us that we cannot let this happen, a call we at times hear and heed, and a call that provokes unsettling questions. Should films about genocide exploit the graphic nature of their topic in order to find a wider audience? Would more attention lead to diminishing atrocity? To contrast films about genocide with Seven or similar blockbusters such as Silence of the Lambs is to examine what fascinates society.
And so I carried these images of S-21 and Seven across Cambodia, from Cheong Ek, up the Tonle Sap River to Siem Riep, throughout Angkor, then on an airplane back to Bangkok. After many countries and years I returned to Seattle without answers. For the enigma of S-21, the starving on the streets o f Karachi and Manila, the limbless in Dar es Salaam, the politically and literally raped in Soweto, the child beggars of São Paulo, the Kashmiri servant in Abu Dhabi, a North Korean guard in Panmunjom, the incarcerated petty drug dealers in Bolivia, the AIDS pariahs outside Chiang Mai, the woman two houses down who just found out she has lung cancer, the homeles s living in tents off the I-5 onramp, at Yesler and Sixth Avenue, overlooking Seattle ’s International District, and also my friend, Davy Muth, who escaped Pol Pot’s Cambodia and immigrated to the United States, attended university, and became a Seattle school teacher and then principal. Yet ask what consolation her success brings, for she lost her husband and their two children in the miasma of the killing fields, and must endure a sorrow that I cannot imagine.
Caleb Powell lived overseas for eight years teaching ESL (English as a Second Language ). Between jobs and while on vacation he traveled to over forty countries on six continents. He enjoys a round of beer, provocative conversation, and hanging out with friends and family. Recent work is at Post Road and LITnIMAGE. Visit him here.
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