I watched the extraordinarily moving documentary Brother Number One last night, one I’d meant to catch when covering the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.
It tells the story of a New Zealander who was captured, tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge. The film’s great success is to use one person’s tale, a foreigner’s what’s more, to guide the audience into the bigger picture of how the Cambodian regime’s survivors and their families are trying to heal their traumas.
The Khmer Rouge and its followers killed nearly 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 according to the Human Rights Watch publicity accompanying the film. In 1978, Kerry Hamill and two friends disappeared without trace while sailing from Australia to Southeast Asia. Via Kerry’s youngest brother Rob we learn how a Khmer Rouge cell attacked their boat, killing the Canadian Stuart Glass and arresting Kerry and the Englishman John Dewhirst.
Film-maker Annie Goldson skilfully skirts the potential trap of giving too Western a slant on what is Cambodia’s story. The risk she took paid off thanks to Rob’s resplendent qualities as a human being, ones that transcend all country and ethnicity.
In Rob’s agonised journey to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal he shows great sensitivity towards the Cambodians who survived the dictators’ reign or lost countless family members to their crazed ideology. In court testimony he addresses directly the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp interogator – Kang Kek Iew or Duch – who oversaw his brother’s killing. We hear many Cambodian victims’ stories along the way.
Rob is brutally honest in showing his own grief as he retraces his brother’s last days, collecting snippets of memory from those who’d seen him in prison. He deciphers on camera the impish coded messages Kerry left to his family in the final “confession” preceding his certain execution.
I have wondered before about the true worth of international trials processes for murderous tyrants and the balance to be struck between revenge and justice. This film left me with a deeper understanding of how trials are vital not just as attempts to right wrongs but also as vehicles for victims to explore, express and honour their grief for slain and tortured family members.
The many victims of the 2003 Iraq invasion deserve just such a process though I fear they’ll never get one. Nor will the families of Cambodian civilians killed by the US war-making that helped the Khmer Rouge rise to power.
War crimes tribunals are as yet limited only to the captured tyrants of geopolitical minnows such as Cambodia. Potential candidates from the world’s more powerful states, such as US ex-president George W. Bush and British ex-prime minister Tony Blair, have only their own consciences to wrestle with for now. More’s the pity.
Thankfully this film was not about such men but rather a rare moment for the victims. It is a fantastic piece of work I highly recommend you find time to watch. Bring tissues.