Review: The Conscience of Nhem En

August 22, 2010

Directed by Steven Okazaki

Veteran filmmaker Steven Okazaki delivers a haunting short documentary set around Tuol Sleng prison, the infamous site of nearly 17,000 executions ordered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. The eponymous subject of the film, Nhem En, was a prison photographer who, at age 16, added thousands to the Khmer Rouge’s collection of prisoner photos, snapped right before their torture and death. Okazaki skillfully juxtaposes Nhem En’s Nuremberg defense (“The interrogators had their job and I had mine.”) with testimonials from three of only eight documented survivors whose memories of torture and the deaths of their family members remain fresh decades later. Clocking in at only 26 minutes, much of the film’s gravitas comes courtesy of the photos themselves — stark black-and-white snapshots of men, women and children. Some may ask why Okazaki chose to interview Nhem En as opposed to higher-ranking Khmer Rouge officials. The film, with its footage of present-day Cambodia still in a state of healing, suggests that everyone shares responsibility in addressing the atrocities of the genocide. Special features include Okazaki’s documentary on indigenous Hawaiian culture and politics, Troubled Paradise.

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Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.