Sunday, July 18, 2010

Returning to Cambodia

We are finally going back to Cambodia to film the sentencing of Comrade Duch. Out of the five being tried, Duch is the only one who, at least for a while, acknowledged his guilt. He converted from Buddhism to Christianity after the fall of the regime and in fact was working for an American Christian aid organization on the border with Thailand. His new religion allows him to ask for forgiveness, so many Cambodians are understandably sceptical about his new faith, given that at least 14,000 were brutally tortured and murdered at Tuol Sleng under his rule. He has nonetheless provided some crucial information that presumably will be used during the next trial – that of three "Brothers" (and one wife) who were part of Pol Pot's powerful inner circle and who allegedly devised the policies that led to the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians. They are assuming no responsibility.

In the meantime, Tim and I have been editing so that on our return to Cambodia, we can be more focused on the content we require. Our drives are already groaning with over 7 terrabytes filled.

Currently we are discussing the tension between pursuing Rob's emotional journey and the story of the Cambodians. There are a plethora of issues that arise – should one Westerner get such attention when so many millions of Cambodians suffered? Why should he not? He and his family suffered hugely and Rob thinks of the loss of his brother most days. But the Cambodian story is such a painful one, almost unimaginable. Does Rob's story help engage a Western audience and make them more likely to understand one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? It is commonplace to hear visitors to Cambodia end up saying "every Cambodian has a story" – which is very true, and one strategy we will try to follow is to explore the stories of the characters that Rob naturally meets.

The other tension is trying to get a balance between the personal story and the historical context. The roots of the genocide in Cambodia are complicated, involving of course the conflagration that was the Vietnam war – how much do audiences want to know? History seems important – otherwise, it is easy to see the Cambodian problem as something "over there", nothing to do with the West, but of course looking at the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the support of the brutal Lon Nol one can start to understand how a regime like the Khmer Rouge can arise. But can we tell the history accurately without becoming dry and too detailed? Always a challenge.


  1. Hey I'm loving the blog! Hopefully get to see some clips soon :)


About Brother Number One

“Brother Number One” was the name that Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia, gave himself. Kerry Hamill was also “brother number one” the oldest boy in the large Hamill family of Whakatane, New Zealand. In 1978, the lives of the two “brother number ones” collided.

Kerry Hamill was on board his charter yacht Foxy Lady with two other men when they anchored at Koh Tang Island to shelter from a storm. Unbeknownst to them they had entered Kampuchean waters, neither did they know of the horror story that was unfolding on the mainland. They had sailed from the hippie era of “love and freedom” into Year Zero. Along with Englishman John Dewhirst, Kerry was seized and tortured for two months at the Khmer Rouge slaughter house, Tuol Sleng (S21). After signing confessions that “admitted” CIA affiliations, they were executed on Pol Pot’s orders. A third companion Canadian Stuart Glass was shot and killed when the boat was captured. Some would say he was the lucky one.

Our documentary Brother Number One follows Kerry’s younger brother Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic rowing champion, as he travels to Cambodia. Rob will attempt to discover the most probable scenario surrounding the capture, incarceration, and murders of his brother and sailing companions. He will travel with Cambodian translator Chantou, a survivor of the killing fields who will tell her story in parallel with Rob’s. Together they will explore the devastating impact of Pol Pot’s maniacal ideology—which saw 2 million killed through execution, starvation and sheer hard work. The film will interweave the history of Cambodia with their journey. The former French colony was sucked into the Cold War; bombed illegally by Nixon and Kissinger; suffered four years of Khmer Rouge brutality; was invaded by the Vietnamese; then in a twist of realpolitik, saw the greatest war criminals since the Third Reich aided and abetted by China, the US and the Western powers. Many Cambodians today remain ignorant of their history, their lives marked by poverty, HIV, and violence.

Rob’s journey will culminate in a confrontation in court with Kaing Khek Iav, better known as Comrade Duch, former Commander at S-21, who gave the final orders for Kerry and John to be tortured and killed. Up to 14,000 Cambodians met the same end in the notorious prison. After 30 years of impunity, Duch and four former “Brothers” are currently standing trial for Crimes Against Humanity, homicide and torture in the Extraordinary Court of Cambodia, a war crimes tribunal that was finally established this year after a decade of international wrangling.

The film will be directed by award-winning filmmaker Annie Goldson (Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl, An Island Calling) and produced by Pan Pacific Films.

Meet the Makers

Producer/Director: Annie Goldson is a filmmaker, whose award-winning feature documentaries – which include An Island Calling, Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl, Sheilas: 28 Years On, Pacific Solution and Elgar’s Enigma – have received over 30 awards internationally at film festivals. They have also been broadcast on most major channels, including HBO, PBS, ABC, SBS, Channel 4 (UK), ARD and others. An Island Calling (2008), funded by TV3/NZOA with an SBS presale, recently won Best Documentary and Achievement in Camera at the Qantas Film and Television Awards. Annie was also a finalist in the Achievement in Directing category. The documentary subsequently won Best Documentary and Best Director at the Madrid Lesgai International Film Festival, and the Grand Prix at FIFO, the Oceania Festival in Tahiti. The film premiered at Hotdocs in Toronto and screened at a number of international festivals including Sydney, Melbourne, FIPA, Seattle, Frameline and Newfest. She is also a writer and academic and received her PhD from the University of Auckland where she teaches in the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies. Annie received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 as recognition for services to film. As well as working on Brother Number One, she has a science series Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies in development for international broadcast.

Originating Producer: James Bellamy has worked in the film industry for over 24 years in a variety of roles, primarily as a documentary producer/director on award-winning documentary, arts and lifestyle series. He has completed three documentary features as an independent producer, which has involved him in extensive international production. He directed and produced Art in the Freezer to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Scott Base in Antarctica. The film was introduced on-air by Sir Edmund Hillary. Given this latter experience and his enthusiasm for longer-form documentary, James is now intending to dedicate himself to projects such as Brother Number One.

Key Documentary Subject/Producer: Rob Hamill rowed for New Zealand for 16 years winning World Championship Silver and Commonwealth Gold. He holds a world record on the indoor rowing machine and competed at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Rob is also a writer, publishing The Naked Rower, an account of how he and Phil Stubbs won the first trans-Atlantic Rowing Race in 41 days. Since his ocean adventure Rob has often considered tracing the wake left by his brother Kerry to discover what really happened in Cambodia. That time has come.