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Brother No 2 – Review

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Screening at SIFF under the Singapore Panorama section this year was another politically aware documentary feature called “Brother No.2” by Jason Lai. In well-established, almost plain, fashion, this 75 minutes long film tries to lessen the distance we feel when facing the unimaginable – in this case the abysmal horrors of the Khmer Rouge terror regime and its many unreconciled victims.

One of the victims and an eye-witness to his own father’s torturous interrogation, Soy Sen, functions as our guide through the hell of memory as we follow him on a journey to face the man in charge of the infamous torture prison S-21.

We understand by this linear set-up that he is out on a mission to confront this haunting past and lasting injustice – whether he undertakes it for the camera or just emboldened by it, is not entirely clear and an uneasy question. By the time the film ends some doubts remain. But this has nothing to do with the story’s development as such, the accounting that in the end there is no redemption: the two men, victim and alleged perpetrator, come face to face – and converse politely. There is a fatalistic honesty in this and the impression a saddening one; and very powerful indeed.

What is at fault here, however, is the technical and structural procedure, the film’s sense of direction, which is too simplistic and insufficiently executed. A large part of this is attributable to the handling of the footage. The voice-over which is supposed to do the talking in this picture is not engaging but instead sounds patronizing in an uninformed way. It feels like alien tissue where it is addressing scars and severe wounds, some of them festering; quite literally, it sounds cosmetic. The inroad for sympathy to find its way into the portrait of somebody else’s life should come through their voice and their own, personal images, whether it is in the setting or the story. If it is addressing a big theme like in this case, then the two will be so closely intertwined, the place and what happened with it, as to be virtually inseparable, close to identical; and therein we can find all the telling that’s needed. Not so in “Brother No.2”.

You can discard of this as a superficial comment in itself, as little more than a merely subjective response to a certain pitch of voice. Still, the textual information provided doesn’t do the theme justice. It doles out facts to provide a context that in the end is both bookish and rudimentary. The distribution and quality of supplementary information throughout any documentary is always crucial, especially so where it touches upon the political sphere; here it is simply not done appropriately. To fittingly provide a context – well, there are many ways for doing just that and I need not go into it at this point. But it should have been done in a markedly less foregrounded manner. There is nothing in the spoken words to penetrate the layer of immediate impression. The interviews are not illuminated from within and you are left with many a staple utterance throughout the film. The interviewees, well chosen as they may be, present their case, but they don’t open up.

For example, there is an interview with the notoriously incorrigible Nuon Chea, the homicidal regime’s chief ideologist, interspersed with the other accounts. It was him, who conceived the scheme to erase the educated part of Cambodia’s population. He inaugurated the execution policy for the realization of a Maoist Utopia; and he is the one known as “Brother No.2” who could laugh at the word “genocide” in the face of 1.7 million killed – almost a quarter of the nation’s entire population. The footage shows him in his rural home near the Thai border, living out a private citizen’s life together with his wife. Apparently, it was shot before his arrest in late 2007 to stand trial before the recently established international tribunal after the former deal by which he had been granted factual immunity in the late 90s had been terminated. Presently, justice can be done – as practiced by the law. But it is also noteworthy to state that he has admitted to feel remorse and wants to speak out in court. We don’t know everything yet and as this chapter is still awaiting closure, we have to await the outcome.

But coming back to the film at hand and to the issue of how it treats the subject matter, it needs to be acknowledged that there are limits to what ground speech can cover; or un-veil. There are limits to the effable. Is it psychologically possible to admit genocide? We have to question this all too plain approach on a principle level first, before handling something which is out of proportion with inadequate tools of cognition. What do we really know or understand about something or another one’s mind if we feel with them? Empathy, or the lack of it, is not the same as understanding. The one cannot replace the other.

And then, there are some very odd animation sequences in the film that don’t do the telling they are supposedly meant for, but are completely off the mark – least of all aesthetically. They are wholly insufficient in covering both the human tragedy or dimension of the Khmer Rouge, and the political background of Cold War geo politics of a very precise time and historical experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to assume any misguided exploitational interest here, but the sheer methodical helplessness they display does a great disservice to the film’s overall effect.

On the whole, “Brother No.2” is not a convincing documentary about the Khmer Rouge regime and its human cost. If its aim was to enhance knowledge and understanding of the subject, it failed to achieve it. After watching, I couldn’t say that I had understood or learnt anything I didn’t know in advance. The picture remains at the surface of all its big themes: pain, suffering, terror and justice.

One insight can be salvaged, however. It comes in the form of a comment made by an NGO spokesperson or representative who works with some of the deeply traumatized victims. It really draws on first-hand life experience and is one of those universally human revelations that we watch such heavy themed documentaries for: “Reconciliation is very personal”. Alright; but as an approach to such a highly emotive and charged topic as genocide, the picture, any documentary in fact, simply cannot stop there.

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