Brother Number One and the White Savior Industrial Complex
The official description of the 2011 documentary film Brother Number One reads:
Brother Number One is a New Zealand documentary on the torture and murder of New Zealand yachtie Kerry Hamill by the Khmer Rouge in 1978. It follows the journey of Kerry’s younger brother, Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic champion rower, who travels to Cambodia to retrace the steps taken by his brother and John Dewhirst, speaking to eyewitnesses, perpetrators and survivors.
More or less, it is an accurate description. But in the context of documentaries about the Cambodian mass killings and genocide, of which there are very few (read my review of Enemies of the People on N+1 here), we need to read between the lines: this is a documentary about the white experience of a unique and definitive part of Southeast Asian history. It is one tragic story among almost two million—Rob’s tale one of fourteen million survivor’s tales. Only a handful of which are the stories of white English-speaking folk. In other words, the events documented in Brother Number One happened, certainly, but they are not the story.
Keep in mind: genocide is a term that does not apply to all the killings that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, and certainly not most of the almost 12,500 that occurred in the S-21 prison where Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst met their ends. But in the Westerners’ case, because they were of a different race and ethnicity from the killers, it does. This is a significant point, because the justification for this film—uttered several times within the film itself, and by the filmmakers in texts that present the film, as well as by the human rights organization that hosted the screening I saw—is that having a Western perspective on a non-Western occurrence is necessary to capture the attention of the international audience. (Whether or not “the attention of the international audience” is itself necessary is an issue we can address at some future point.)
In other words, for Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst—and for the two other white people killed at S-21, as well as other non-Cambodians—the Khmer Rouge regime was, clearly, a system of genocide. For Cambodians, however, who made up the majority of the population of the torture prison, it was not.
So already the story Olympian and Trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill tells is atypical. Because of their white skin, height, and inability to speak Khmer—and because, as the film explains but does not explore, Kerry and John had sailed thoughtlessly into a war zone—the Westerners were targeted as outsiders. Brother Number One does not therefore convey what life was like for all but a handful of those who met their ends at the S-21 prison, nor does the film address the most pressing ongoing difficulties the majority of Cambodians face in seeking justice today. In fact, as we will see in a moment, it skims over them completely. Although this particular story would not have been told without Rob Hamill—one of the most internationally renowned New Zealanders to emerge from this otherwise under-understood country (still better understood than Cambodia, however, at least from a US perspective)—his privilege in telling the story of S-21 is significant, because it changes the story he tells.
Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst’s linguistic and physical differences also offered the filmmakers privileges—unacknowledged in the film. Take for example Rob Hamill’s method for retracing the steps of his brother and companion: The hero wanders around the countryside with a photograph of the Westerners, asking people (with the help of a translator, natch) if they remember seeing a tall white man at S-21 prison. Sure, they say. There were only four of them. Rob’s difficulty in finding people who remember Kerry is not high. But keep in mind that even the photograph—any photograph—was itself a privilege inaccessible to the majority of families who lost members at S-21. The country was simply too poor for photography to be common. Nor, of course, could Cambodians so easily query each other on their memories of medium-height, ragged-clothed, dark-haired, brown-skinned men or women. There were slightly less than 12,500 of them during the almost four-year run of the facility.
So the method of inquiry the film utilizes was not available to the majority of those whose family members suffered the same fate as Kerry Hamill. And although surviving family members of Cambodians killed at S-21 were also invited to testify at Duch’s hearing, Rob Hamill’s fame and foreignness certainly offered him the freedom and flexibility to attend, which many Cambodians could not afford, financially—or perhaps more significantly, socioculturally—to do. The country is still quite poor, and the tribunals viewed with skepticism. Not to mention that the funding and marketing of the film hinged on Rob Hamill’s fame. Neither, in other words, could this film have told the story of a Cambodian killed under the Khmer Rouge, nor would there have been a film at all, had this not been Rob Hamill’s story to tell.
Much of which is reflected in the title: “Brother Number One” is supposed to refer to Kerry’s status as the elder brother, not only the Khmer Rouge regime in power at the time of his death. However, the real, actual Brother Number One was Pol Pot, or Saleth Sar, who makes only a marginal appearance in the film (seemingly stuck in to justify the title, n fact). The film is not so much about the Khmer Rouge as a whole, however, as it is about S-21 prison, which many former Khmer Rouge have since attempted to marginalize in relationship to the Angkar. This is theoretically a way of distancing former party members still active in politics (including the prime minister himself) from the most evil Khmer Rouge invention, the prison. But it is also smart politics: Duch’s hearing was the first slated in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and only three others slated at all, now each in jeopardy. Pretending S-21 was the worst of what the Khmer Rouge had to offer, and then punishing Duch for it, lends the appearance of justice to a much more complicated situation. The film’s title builds on the false equivalence that the prison was the worst part of the four-year regime, which is problematic. Yet the self-importance and cuteness of referencing Pol Pot in the title, only to position Kerry as the central figure in this history of mass killings, torture, and other evils, is distressing. Imperialistic. Orientalist. And will go unnoticed by most viewers.
Most viewers, of course, are what the film’s creators call that desirable “international audience”. They are Westerners, prized ostensibly for cultural predominance, ability to influence international affairs, and control of the majority of the world’s resources. It is true that the film would not have been made were it not about Rob Hamill’s brother. This is what the filmmakers, the organizations that sponsor screenings, and Rob Hamill himself feel is its true value. That a film exists on this subject at all, that Westerners can relate to. But. While what happened to Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst was awful, and what Rob Hamill and his family went through must have been unbearable, too, this film does not tell a larger truth about Southeast Asian history. It tells a story about the persecution of Westerners. Who, the film fails to explain at all, played an extremely significant role in the events that lead to the Khmer Rouge revolution in the first place.
I am reminded of this line in Brecht’s Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties:
[I]t is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. … [but] their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. But on closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down.
They do not discover the truths that are worth writing about.
Brother Number One is certainly a true story. It is meaningful, it is sorrowful, it is unfortunate. But in telling this truth, other ones—the ones worth telling—get hidden.