Friday, January 14, 2011

Enemies of the People vs. Holiday in Cambodia

Jello Biafra in the pit at the Rickshaw, photo by Femke van Delft (not to be reused without permission). Jello's face is visible under the upraised arm of a fan, to the right of the centre of the image


I've seen Jello Biafra sing "Holiday In Cambodia" three times now, once with the Dead Kennedys, once with the Melvins, and once with the Guantanamo School of Medicine at their recent Rickshaw gig. The song is truly a masterpiece of punk - especially the chant of "Pol Pot," referencing (in case anyone out there DOESN'T know) the leader of the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries that plunged Cambodia into a horrific darkness in the late 1970's, killing two million of their own people in the name of rebuilding their country from the ground up. The song happens, in fact, to be the first time I'd ever heard of Pol Pot - listening to Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables when I was a kid (just like I first heard the word "Sandinista" through the Clash or first learned about urban guerrillas via the Subhumans). I vividly remember watching, from the Rickshaw balcony a few months ago, as the moshers frenziedly threw themselves about when the "Pol Pots" picked up speed and intensity; as I looked on, an odd thought took hold of me. The song, on the one hand, appears to be a rather black-humoured class-hate fantasy of subjecting a Yuppie (a "star-bellied Sneetch") to the extremes of Third World poverty and violence, but something else takes hold of audiences during that chant, bringing them close to an unwitting celebration of the very hostility and mistrust against the "imperialist west" that was a big part of the Khmer Rouge ideology; during the chant, supposedly liberal, progressive punks are kinda being invited to REVEL in the name of Pol Pot, with Jello in a sense turning the moshpit briefly into a tamed-down facsimilie of Cambodia's descent into ideologically-driven savagery and violence, an envigorating, entertaining and RELATIVELY consumer-friendly version of the killing fields. It's great theatre, but more disturbing in its implications than I suspect a lot of the moshers realize (and God knows there must be punks out there still who know this song but know nothing of Pol Pot). It's actually kind of creepy to contemplate, and it raises troubling questions: is punk really about intelligent misfits wanting to create community and challenge aspects of their society that deserve to be challenged - a socially progressive project - or is it about venting hatred, resentment, and anger, about lashing out from ones alienation and striking a blow, however symbolic, against the "normal" world that we don't fit into? As a lifelong punk, I'd still have to say that for me, personally, the answer would be "a bit of both."

...And what about the Khmer Rouge? Ever since I first read about them - prompted by my Dead Kennedys lyric sheet to do a bit of homework - I've tried, and failed, to understand how they could do what they did. They also, apparently, believed that they were engaged in a socially progressive project, getting rid of corrupt western ways, defending their people from US and Vietnamese influences, and bringing the country back to an agrarian golden age. However many eggs they smashed, from their point of view - at least at the top - it was justified in reference to the omelet they saw themselves as making. This doesn't excuse or mitigate the horrors they perpetrated against their own people, but it does raise questions - especially for radicals, revolutionaries or people of the left. How to reconcile what seems to be an authentic streak of utopian idealism in the Khmer Rouge "project" with the bloody violence and destruction they brought to their country? How to separate out what they thought they were doing from what they actually did? Is what happened in Cambodia a cultural and historical aberration, or is there something inherent in the idea of revolutionary change and/or communism that lends itself to such brutality? How do supposedly good intentions end up going so bad?


At least some of these questions are raised by a striking documentary, Enemies of the People, starting today at the Vancity Theatre. (Official site here). It focuses on the work of one Thet Sambath, a journalist trying to understand - by getting testimony from those involved - exactly what happened in Cambodia. Described as a "personal journey" into the heart of the killing fields, it maintains a very intimate level of focus, with the filmmaker talking at length about his own family story - his father, mother, and brother all having died in the Khmer Rouge purges, with his father being stabbed to death for defending the right to own property, then thrown in one of the ditches that served as mass graves. Over ten years, as part of a private project, Thet has collected interviews with anyone he can find who will come forward about their role in what happened: most significantly, in the film, two low-level killers, Khoun and Soun, who have decided they want to come clean about their involvment, and describe in great detail how they slit throats, or the penchant of some - including Soun - for carrying around human gall bladders, cut from their victims, to drink the gall, for its supposed medicinal value. You don't get to hear people talk about this sort of thing very often - certainly not people who are free to walk around - but these are just some of the horrors catalogued. Khoun and Soun remain free because it is felt that the real culprits are the Khmer Rouge higher-ups, who ordered the execution of "traitors;" for those lower in the ranks, to disobey orders would simply mean being killed by someone else. A lot of low-level killers remain free men even today.

Of the higher ups, "Brother Number One," Pol Pot, is now deceased, but Brother Number Two, Nuon Chea, is still alive, in his 80's, and the real coup of the film is - as the United Nations prepares to try him for war crimes, for which he is now incarcerated - that Thet Sambath gets Nuon Chea to TALK about his involvement in orchestrating the mass killings, something that takes Thet many interviews, over several years, to achieve. While Nuon Chea admits to ultimate failure - no omelet was forthcoming - he appears to be largely unrepentant about the means he used to his "noble" end; he blames America and Vietnam, seems to justify the killings as being part of a defence of his country, and even claims - when Khoun and Soun are brought to meet him - that their conscience should be clear, that they should be proud of what they did for their country. (Khoun and Soun, to their credit, are anything but).

Made in collaboration with filmmaker Rob Lemkin, Enemies of the People is a remarkable and important film, though it perhaps errs on the side of being a bit TOO intimate: however courageous and valuable the work of Thet Sambath may be, there sure is a lot of time spent watching him go about collecting his footage, showing him leaving his family, driving through the Cambodian landscape, cataloguing his tapes, translating the interviews, and so forth - with some bits of information being unnecessarily repeated, like how he is withholding his actual family history from Nuon Chea, the better to get him to open up. Perhaps this is an attempt to provide an element of personal drama for viewers less interested in history, but I would have preferred more focus on the latter, myself, since it is Thet's work and what it means for history, and not his experience of collecting it, that ultimately matters. Still, Thet Sambath's archive is a remarkable accomplishment, it IS interesting to watch a journalist undertake so dangerous and important a project in his spare time, and his intimate approach to his interview subjects, winning their trust slowly over time, certainly pays off. Hearing the stories of Khoun, Soun, and Nuon Chea brings me closer than I was previously to understanding something that perhaps cannot, in the end, ever be completely understood. Anyone interested in questions of how the revolution can go wrong, in questions of bringing war criminals to justice, or in the history of Southeast Asia or of communism, should see the film.

...and maybe so should anyone who has ever moshed to "Holiday in Cambodia." Time to go where people are one, indeed...


Post-script - also this week, the Vancity will be playing the documentary about Omar Khadr, You Don't Like the Truth; I have a lengthy piece on that film somewhere below...

4 comments:

Not Waving But Drowning said...

Just a comment as to what punk is about. When it first originated, it was a reaction...to the music and the times. Punk issued the statement that "things are not okay and we won't boogie the night away." New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and people were lining up for fuel. A few years later, Ronnie was in the White House while Thatcher ruled overseas. The hope of the '60's had died, Nixon had embittered people about politicians and the cold war was heating up again. As the middle class increasingly felt the strain, the kids voiced their distress in their music. Punk now? The idiots in the media think that some chick in black is hardcore---Rebel Barbie. So, while events such as Hardcore 81 were a good time (I betay my age), the performers usually were driven and committed to say something that spoke beyond teen lust.

vmichael said...

Nice blog. Loved that song since the day it came out, still play it a lot. Also love Cambodia, although I didn't get there until 2001. Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

this is a good article and looks like an excellent documentary...cant wait till it comes out on video, will have to buy it. While you make a good point about the DK song, I disagree to some extent with your analysis in that part of the point of the song, in my opinion, is to whip people into the mindless frenzy during the "pol pot" chanting as (and this was the case in my experience just listening to the song), later when you are reading and researching about pol pot and the horrors of the killing fields, etc, you think back to the song and how easily you were lead by the chanting and you realize how easy it is to slip into jingoist nonsense that all authoritarians and dictators employ quite successfully in their program to create mass hatred of a certain type or segment of society...it therefore also immediately brings one to consider the German's in world war two, and their roles in their killing off jews, gypsies, polish, and anyone else they disliked...and, it should therefore make you think about the ease with which all peoiple are led by media, left or right, and by those we look up to, let or right, and therefore how much MORE conscious we have to be of every thing and how much we have to QUESTION EVERYTHING/ONE!
Only then can we really consider ourselves "Punk" and only then can we consider ourselves to have "raised our consciousness"
Basically, if you do the mental gymnastics required/requested of you by punk music or political music of any kind, the pay off is huge....if you dont because of laziness or stupidity or willful ignorance, then you will be just as mindless as those you criticize in the mainstrewam....

Anonymous said...

Aaah, I wrote a comment and somehow deleted the entire thing! Anyway, the gist was that I was just linked through to your blog via the miracle of Facebook and felt the need to shower you with compliments regarding your insightful and eloquent post- and also to pressure you into ditching whatever your current occupation is, so that you can move to Australia (Melbourne, obviously) and start lecturing in our universities! Do it! Do it now!

Kate of Melbourne