You're a filmmaker who isn't afraid to take on "heavy" subjects. What drew you to this story?
It is about conscience. It's about everybody's conscience.
It was a fascinating story: Nhem En was a sixteen year old soldier for the Khmer Rouge, and it was his job to take photos of their prisoners. For the most part, they were all fellow Cambodians who were captured, tortured and killed, or sent directly to the killing fields. The photos are unforgettable.
They're essentially ID photos, but they used a large format camera. No one's exactly sure why. It was the 1970s, so they could've easily done Polaroids or used 35 millimeter. But they did these striking large formal portraits and seeing them, you experience something of what they're feeling, knowing they're going to be killed.
For me, the most disturbing photos are of the few people who seem to reflexively smile because there's a camera in front of them. They're unaware of what's about to happen, and their smiles are very disturbing. But most of the people - you can see it in their eyes - they know they're going to die.
The other thing that drew me to the project was just the question of what would you do if you were in that situation? This is the first time I've done a film where the main character was not someone I was drawn to as a person. The main character of this film is kind of dead inside, there's this coldness to him that's frightening. I mean, he didn't give a wink or a smile to the children that he was photographing, that he knew were going to die. He didn't offer anybody a glass of water, or console them in any way. To me, that's unimaginable.
Is that where the title grew out of?
The title was (HBO's) Sheila Nevins' idea. I was motivated to make the film because of the images. Except for the opening of the film, there's no archival footage to tell the story. The film is told through victim's faces and the faces of the Cambodian people today. So for me the film was about the victims of the Khmer Rouge and the dignity in their faces as they realize their fate. I was not comfortable with the photographer and his complicity. Calling the film "The Conscience of Nhem En" put a weight on it that initially worried me. I didn't want anyone to think we were honoring Nhem En. But Sheila was right. It is about conscience. It's about everybody's conscience. Nhem En wouldn't allow himself to process whether what he was doing was right or wrong. He has no conscience.
There are tremendously powerful scenes with some of the survivors. What was it like capturing those moments?
What's shocking is that this was thirty years ago. I was completely unprepared for how fresh it was in people's lives, and how real the pain was.
The three people in the film who survived the prison were all very willing to participate. They had to share their stories, and their pain. And what was really striking and moving was that each time they went back to the prison it was so painfully real for them. It wasn't recalling an emotion. As soon as they were there they were living it again. It was coming from a really fresh memory. And what's shocking is that this was thirty years ago. I was completely unprepared for how fresh it was in people's lives, and how real the pain was.
You frame the film with the faces of ordinary people on the street, some wary, some smiling. What was your intention with that?
Wherever we were while making the film, whether we were walking into a marketplace or driving in the car, you felt this really powerful fear everywhere. There's a look of sort of trepidation. The fear from thirty years ago is still a part of life in Cambodia, even now. I noticed it from the first moments we were there. But when you looked someone in the eye and communicated that you weren't there to hurt them or rip them off, people immediately responded with such kindness.
Through the whole filming, I struggled with how much cruelty was in the story, and how much pain there was in people's lives. I was really searching for a way to find something that would give the story a little hope. And in the final interviews with everyone we talked to, it was difficult finding that. So we decided to echo the photos from the 1970s and do our own portraits of people on the street, in the marketplaces and the ghettos all over the city.
Some of the people were looking sort of dead serious at the camera, and they don't break at all. But there's still a little sparkle in people's eyes. And that was just a way of getting back to humanity, and of echoing what the one survivor says in the film at the end, to remind us of how precious life is.