(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)
The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.
“We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”
Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.
“When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”
We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.
“It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”
This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?
“One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”
Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.
NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand