Annie Goldson’s Brother Number One premiered to a sold-out screening at the NZFF on Sunday. Water plays a big part in the film, being the environment from which Kerry Hamill was plucked by Khmer Rouge back in 1978 and the environment on which brother Rob has made his mark.
Water also works, at times during the film, as both a metaphor and the environment in which other major turning points take place. Like the tides on which some of it is set, Brother Number One has enormous strength. NZ Olympian and trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill’s efforts to uncover more information about his brother ebb and flow. For the viewer, a few tissues to soak up some water won’t go amiss.
For those of us old enough to remember, the Pol Pot regime that took over Cambodia for a brief period of time implemented an horrific experiment. It pushed beyond the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany a couple of generations earlier in that it targeted its own people with even more brutality and stupidity than Mao’s cultural revolution in China, on which it was modelled. In 1975, when Pol Pot took over the country, its population was around 7 million. By the time of its removal from power by the Vietnamese just over three years later, the population had fallen to below 5 million.
Thankfully, it was a long way away, and nothing to do with us – just another bunch of unstable and incomprehensible foreigners screwing up their own country. We watched it on newsreels, although the number of those diminished rapidly as journalists rightfully became concerned for their safety and quit the country.
We saw it again in 1984 – still from a safe distance – in the David Puttnam-produced three-time Oscar winner The Killing Fields.
For some foreigners, the effects of the regime’s “Year Zero” campaign – to take society back to its agrarian roots and start over – were immediate and direct. China tried to reinvigorate its failing Cultural Revolution (on which Khmer Rouge policy and ideology was based), claiming its “successes” were a model being followed “across Asia”.
Closer to home, Rob Hamill was more directly affected. His brother Kerry, sailing around Asia at the time, was captured, tortured and murdered by the regime. Not that the effects were that immediate. Two years passed between Kerry’s disappearance and his family receiving confirmation of his death.
Annie Goldson became involved with the project in late 2008, being introduced to it by producer James Bellamy, who’d been working with Hamill on researching and developing the idea as a film documentary. Initially brought on as director, Goldson also became a producer once the search for international funding began.
Back in early 2009, at what was then the DocNZ Summit, Goldson and producer James Bellamy pitched the project in the DocPitch session. The pitch included a statement by Rob Hamill: “This story is one in a million that will test the strength of my forgiveness for those who murdered my brother.”
Two years on, the finished film has stayed true to that core idea.
Classified in 2009 as in “late development” the project already had some funding from NZ On Air and TV3, whose Sue Woodfield had commissioned it for the Inside New Zealand series. After seeing the 99 minute theatrical cut, it’s hard to imagine a successful 44 minute cut that doesn’t rip the guts out of it.
There was no guarantee that a theatrical cut would receive any financial support, although Goldson says that in the past she’s squeezed a theatrical cut out of funding for a TV slot and would probably have done the same again had it been the only way to make it happen.
It was also at the DocNZ Summit that Goldson met American Emmy winning cinematographer Peter Gilbert (Hoop Dreams) who subsequently joined the project as one of two DoPs, shooting the material in the US, UK (where the sister of the British man captured and executed with Kerry, John Dewhirst, still lives) and Cambodia.
Goldson also took the project to HotDocs in May 2009, prior to shooting material in the US and the UK and Australia – the starting point of Kerry Hamill’s voyage on Foxy Lady in Darwin and home of his then-girlfriend Gail Colley. At HotDocs, the project (without any shot footage at that stage) secured a good amount of interest, but no firm commitments of cash.
As it turned out, the search for overseas money eventually proved fruitless, partly because a lot of the usual suspects already had money in Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s Khmer Rouge doco Enemies of the People, which screened and won at the Documentary Edge festival here earlier this year, having earlier this year picked up a Special Jury prize at Sundance.
Goldson is now following up on the early interest as the film is submitted to a number of international festivals. As well as screening in the NZFF, it will screen at the Melbourne Festival at the end of the week. Goldson is exploring giving the film a limited theatrical outing once its festival commitments are complete.
The title of Brother Number One refers to both Kerry Hamill, Rob’s eldest sibling, and to the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot. The cynical nod towards the egalitarian ‘Brother’ was matched by renaming the country ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.
Certainly, the treatment Kerry Hamill received from the regime was democratic. Once arrested his fate, to be tortured into confessing crimes of which he had no part or knowledge – had they even been actually committed – before being executed, was the same as that of most of the other 17,000 or so prisoners incarcerated at Tuol Sleng prison, aka S-21, during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. Only seven survived.
As head of the S-21 prison Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch (pronounced Doik), states early on in the film, “The rule at S-21 was that all prisoners who arrived must be interrogated, tortured and smashed. No exceptions.”
The horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime, including the killing of somewhere between two and three million of its own population, still hang over the country. Although the story of Brother Number One is Hamill’s search for information and closure, the viewer is constantly reminded that everybody in Cambodia was – and remains – affected by the Khmer Rouge regime.
The production’s Cambodian line producer, Kulikar Sotho, lost relatives. Her story is – like so many others encountered as the story unfolds – a fascinating one in its own right and a constant reminder that, while we care about one of our own, so too does everyone else.
The intimate connection of the Cambodians working on the film with its subject matter does, however, inform the interviews with Cambodian subjects. Sotho’s own emotional involvement with the subject matter is sometimes apparent.
The film is built around the trial of Comrade Duch, the first trial in a belated and slow-moving national reconciliation process, with a small number of still-surviving members of the regime going on trial for their crimes at the time.
Originally proposed for completion in mid-2010, completion was delayed by the extremely long court process. An initial trip to Cambodia captured a number of interviews as well as Rob Hamill’s preparation and testimony before the court. Hamill, appearing as a Civil Party – a person adversely impacted by the actions of the person on trial – was one of the later participants in the trial, which lasted several months and wrapped up in November 2009.
The judgement took almost a year, with the court’s judges having to navigate not only the complexities of the case but also new areas of law in Cambodia and no small amount of political pressure.
Hamill is restrained throughout. He cries, smiles only occasionally, and mostly holds in any bitterness or anger. Perhaps time has healed some wounds, although they openly weep at certain points. Early on in the film, he wonders out loud about the value of going to Cambodia and participating in the trial process.
The dilemma of how to feel, whether to forgive or seek revenge, comes to the surface on several occasions for both Hamill and Cambodian interviewees. In Cambodia it’s further complicated by the prevailing Buddhist beliefs – karma can be a bitch – and the possibly convenient conversion of Comrade Duch to Christianity, in which sins just get washed away.
Finally, the trial process is a legal, not religious, one. It is to the judges, not a preferred deity, to whom defendants must first answer.
The panel of judges hearing the trial in Cambodia comprises three local judges and two from elsewhere. Former NZ Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright was one of the two international judges. Cartwright was approached to participate in Brother Number One but declined to be interviewed.
The question “Who is responsible?” dominates the film. Hamill’s search for answers extends far beyond the questions he asks in court. In and out of court, former Khmer Rouge officials pass the buck, either denying what happened or making frequent use of the Nuremburg defence – I was just following orders, and not to follow them would have put me in danger.
Even Brother Number One Pol Pot, should he still be alive, would be unlikely to take responsibility for the actions of his regime. The coup he led came about after over a dozen years leading opposition to a corrupt government. Prior to the coup the US carpet bombed North Eastern Cambodia in its campaign to flush out North Vietnamese fighters crossing the border to avoid detection or capture.
In such environments, extreme reactions are not uncommon, however indefensible they appear when viewed from the safe distance of a comfortable if occasionally irritating democracy.
As a filmmaker Goldson is comfortable, insofar as anyone can be, with this sort of material, having a strong interest in human rights issues and the development of post-war societies. Her 2008 film An Island Calling dealt with the 2001 murders in Fiji of John Scott, DG of the Fiji Red Cross, and his partner Greg Scrivener. 1999’s Punitive Damage told the story of New Zealander Helen Todd’s lawsuit against an Indonesian general after Todd’s son, Kamal, was shot dead in the Dili massacre in 1991.
An Island Calling screened either in competition or official selection at over 20 international festivals, having its international premiere at HotDocs and winning several awards including the Grand Prix at FIFO. Locally it won two from three nominations (Best Documentary, Best Camera) at the 2008 Qantas Awards.
Punitive Damage screened at over 40 international festivals and sold for TV in several countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany and the US.
Goldson is developing the Brother Number One website to include broader and more indepth information on the trials and the Khmer Rouge regime and post-genocide culture. She would have liked to explored more of the court proceedings and culture in Brother Number One, but felt that it would have gone beyond the film’s remit of telling the story of Rob Hamill and his family.
Brother Number One
The second trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia began last month, trying Nuon Chea (Brother Number 2, prime minister); Ieng Sary (Brother Number 3, foreign minister); Khieu Samphan (Brother Number 5, head of state); and Ieng’s wife, Ieng Thirith (social affairs minister), all of whom were arrested in 2007.
Rob Hamill has filed an application to be considered a Civil Party for the second trial, and a mooted third trial. The third trial, which would probably see at least one of Brother Number One’s interview subjects in the dock, currently seems unlikely to go ahead due to internal political pressure. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has claimed that further trials would cause a civil war. It seems more likely they would implicate members of the current government for their historical activities.
Hamill also hopes to return to Cambodia to meet with Comrade Duch who, at his trial, expressed a willingness to meet with victims’ family members. Hamill’s requests to meet have so far been denied. Should a request be accepted, Goldson is keen to film their conversation either to change the ending of the film or for use on the film’s website.
Brother Number One was funded by the NZFC, NZ On Air, TV3 and the University of Auckland.