The Weight of Living

The feature film “The Gate,” presented during the Cambodian International Film Festival, starts with the actor portraying Francois Bizot stressing what has haunted him for 40 years: the fact that he owes his life to a man who killed thousands.

“Because of me, your daughter will have a father to see her grow up,” Kaing Guek Eav tells the French scholar.

A scene from ‘The Gate,’ directed by Regis Wargnier (Les Films du Cap-Gaumont/Rafael Winer)
A scene from ‘The Gate,’ directed by Regis Wargnier (Les Films du Cap-Gaumont/Rafael Winer)

But also because him, there are hundreds of daughters who did not.

This man, known by his Khmer Rouge alias Duch, keeps Mr. Bizot prisoner at the interrogation site M-13 in 1971 and then releases him. Duch later runs the regime’s Tuol Sleng extermination camp, where he oversees the torture and death of more than 12,000 people in Phnom Penh.

As this sober but powerful film shows, it is only in the 1990s that Mr. Bizot realizes the extent of Duch’s crimes during the regime. But he is nevertheless haunted by the guilt of having walked out of M-13 while the two Cambodians captured with him in 1971 were executed.

The 2014 film, shot in French and released under the title “Le Temps des Aveux” (which translates as “time to confess”) is based on the book “The Gate,” in which Mr. Bizot, who works for the French research institution Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Cambodia, describes the months he spent as a Khmer Rouge prisoner. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Regis Wargnier, it is presented in French with English subtitles during the festival.

Mr. Bizot, who lived with his Cambodian wife in a village in Ang-kor park, is taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge on a country road as he and two Cambodians assisting him are returning from a Buddhist monastery. Brought to the jungle camp M-13 in Kompong Speu province, the Cambodians are taken away while he was chained to a beam outdoors.

And there he remains, watching Cambodians being herded away never to return, the violence nearly palpable in the camp, over which hovers the ghostly figure of Duch, filling Mr. Bizot and the other prisoners with a choking fear.

Brought into Duch’s office, Mr. Bizot is told to write his confession, which he does, explaining his research work on Cambodian Buddhism.  Convinced of the researcher’s innocence, Duch recommends his release, despite the fact that Ta Mok, the powerful secretary of the Khmer Rouge Southwest Zone, opposes it. Later, during the Khmer Rouge regime, innocence would no longer save a prisoner brought to Duch.

Mr. Bizot is released after 77 days of incarceration. He remains in Cambodia and was among the foreigners who took refuge at the French Embassy in April 1975 and were later escorted to the Thai border by the Khmer Rouge.  One scene shows Cambodian women running with Mr. Bizot across the border as Khmer Rouge officials are about to declare their papers fake—only Cambodian women legally married to French nationals with documents to prove it are allowed to leave the country.

Actor Raphael Personnaz, who plays the role of Mr. Bizot, does so with an economy of words and movements that makes his character eminently credible onscreen. He even lost several kilograms to play the incarceration scenes, which he then regained for the last sequences of the film.

First-time actor Kompheak Phoeung manages to truly bring to life the character of Duch, perfectly conveying the man’s intelligence and nearly inhuman detachment. As Mr. Phoeung explained, he had had the opportunity of watching Duch while working as a translator at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Although he manages a theater company, he had never himself performed before.

The film ends with scenes of Mr. Bizot meeting Duch in the 2000s, when the Khmer Rouge jailer is in government custody.

The film was produced by Rithy Panh of Bophana Production and Les Films du Cap-Gaumont.

Although Mr. Wargnier took great pains to authentically re-create the people and places described in the book, he made one big exception. In order to maintain continuity in the film, he said, the characters of Mr. Bizot and Duch had to meet before Mr. Bizot left Cambodia in 1975.

So in the film, Duch is shown as overseeing the evacuation of the French Embassy in 1975, which did not happen. In view of the fact that history of that period still is being written, the decision to mix facts and fiction in a film based on true events and featuring a historical figure is questionable.

This said, this film was directed by Mr. Wargnier with great attention to detail in order to recreate the atmosphere in which the events took place.

Done with the simplicity of a classic, it will no doubt become a must-see feature film on the Khmer Rouge.

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