FOR seven long years, Thet Sambath lived in a world of secrets as he courted and won the trust of the former Khmer Rouge leader he holds responsible for the deaths of his parents.
Month after month, he says, he sat for hours with the aging leader, Nuon Chea, sharing meals and confidences, recording his words on thousands of hours of audio and videotape until at last he confessed his guilt.
His pursuit of Mr. Nuon Chea became an obsession that he says he hid from everybody, even his wife, who never knew where he went on what he called his investigation.
“I forgot everything,” said Mr. Thet Sambath, 42. “I forgot how to make money for my family. I sold my land. I sold everything. My brother told me, ‘You should stop going to the province. For what? You should take care of your children, your wife, build a house.’
“He didn’t know what I was doing. I never told anybody. If I told them, they would have told me to stop.”
Mr. Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of Pol Pot, who died in 1998, is one of four Khmer Rouge leaders who are due to be tried next year for crimes against humanity in the deaths of 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. That trial follows the conviction last month of the chief Khmer Rouge prison warden, Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch.
The killings were a necessary part of the revolution, Mr. Nuon Chea told him during their discussions, which form part of “Enemies of the People,” a film about Mr. Thet Sambath’s search for answers that is now being screened in New York and Los Angeles. Mr. Thet Sambath and his British co-producer, Rob Lemkin, have refused a request by the court for a copy of the film, saying they promised Mr. Nuon Chea that his remarks would be used “for history, not for evidence.”
“They were killed and destroyed,” said Mr. Nuon Chea, now 84 years old, fragile and ailing but unrepentant. “If we had left them alive, the party line would have been hijacked.”
Until almost the end of their interviews in 2007, just before Mr. Nuon Chea was arrested, Mr. Thet Sambath kept another secret: that his parents had been among these victims.
If Mr. Nuon Chea had known this, he said, he might not have let down his guard.
His father was stabbed to death after resisting a Khmer Rouge order to give up his property, Mr. Thet Sambath said. His mother died in childbirth after being forced into a new marriage with a Khmer Rouge militiaman.
“After 1979, I cried almost every night,” Mr. Thet Sambath said.
“I felt that I was an orphan with no parents to take care of me, and that feeling pushed me to try to learn about what happened.”
When Mr. Nuon Chea heard about his parents, he said, “He was shocked. He could not talk. He became very sad.”
And then, possibly for the first time addressing an individual death, Mr. Nuon Chea apologized.
It was Mr. Nuon Chea who urged him to keep secrets, Mr. Thet Sambath said, much as he might have instructed young Khmer Rouge cadres when the movement was still an underground insurgency. “At the beginning, it was very hard for me, but later I got used to it,” he said.
If their meetings became known, one of them could be harmed, the old revolutionary told him. “He said he had experience in the 1960s, and that is how he got to 1975,” when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
“He told me to keep my secrets even from my own family and I will have success,” Mr. Thet Sambath said, and he did. Even with his film complete, he has not told his wife or children about it, perhaps unable to let go of the mission that has consumed him.
Even in his prayers, he has not yet told the souls of his parents, on whose behalf he has been searching.
“One day, I plan to have a ceremony for them,” he said. “I will light a candle and incense, and I will say, ‘Yes, I got success. I understand what happened to you and to other Cambodian people. You can find peace and be reborn into a better life.’ ”
IT was this mission that drew Mr. Thet Sambath into journalism, where he hoped to learn the tools of investigation, he said. He worked first for The Cambodia Daily and now works for The Phnom Penh Post; they are Cambodia’s two English-language newspapers.
“Journalism showed me how to connect with people and how to ask questions,” he said. His years of interviews have made “Enemies of the People” an engrossing documentary that has been honored at the Sundance Film Festival and at other festivals.
In addition to Mr. Nuon Chea, he connected with low-level Khmer Rouge operatives, some of the people who carried out the executions that were part of Mr. Nuon Chea’s vision.
The results are chilling. In one interview on camera, a farmer describes his work in the killing fields, work in which his hand got so tired slicing throats that he had to change his grip on his knife.
“She was in the last batch,” the killer says, recalling one execution. “We’d killed a lot of them except her. She grabbed my legs, screaming, ‘Uncle, please let me live with you.’ I said, ‘You can’t live with me.’ She said, ‘Please, just let me live with you.’ I said, ‘Will you live with me forever?’ She said, ‘Yes, I will.’ She hugged my knees. Then Eng shouted at me, ‘What are you waiting for? Hurry up and kill her.’
“Then I started to kill her and pushed her down into the ditch.”
The killers, carrying out orders that reached them through a chain of commands from above, speak of a deep remorse that Mr. Nuon Chea seems not to have experienced.
“I feel desperate, but I don’t know what to do,” one man says after describing his work as a killer. “I will never again see sunlight as a human being in this world. This is my understanding of Buddhist dharma. I feel desolate.”
AND yet Mr. Thet Sambath said he could not help liking Mr. Nuon Chea.
“He is a warm person, very warm,” he said.
“I mean that I like him right now,” he added. “It doesn’t mean I like him for his regime from 1975 to 1979. I clearly separate that.”
They still talk from time to time over a prison telephone, Mr. Thet Sambath said. “When I ask him, ‘How are you?,’ he says, ‘Oh, I am fine,’ and he’ll laugh.”
In one of the last moments of the film, Mr. Nuon Chea is escorted to a helicopter that will fly him from his rural home to Phnom Penh for trial.
The arrest marked a finale for Mr. Thet Sambath’s long search for answers, and a complicated moment for the child of two of Mr. Nuon Chea’s victims.
“When he was taken into the aircraft, that made me very sad,” Mr. Thet Sambath says as the film nears its end. “Not to say he’s a good man, but because we had used to work together for almost 10 years. I am sad, yeah.”
So not really sure how to tag this one but hopefully what I chose made sense.