Susanne Brandstätter on THE FUTURE'S PAST


«The three families in the film all have offspring under 26, who are only now-for the first time because of the Tribunal – learning what happened, by confronting their parents and neighbors with their questions. Many young people didn't initially believe their parents at all, because they hadn't heard about what happened anywhere else.» Susanne Brandstätter on the filming of her documentary The Future's Past, in which she observes how Cambodia's younger and older generations come to terms with history as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal progresses.


In your last film, Rule of Law, you already dealt in quite a bit of depth with the topic of international justice. Did the last film's conclusion lead you directly into this new theme?
Susanne Brandstätter: Yes, it had to do with the main figure in Rule of Law, Claudia Fenz, who was an UN judge in Kosovo at the time. Claudia and I became friends during work on the film. When it was suggested to her that she apply for a position as judge in the trial against the Khmer Rouge, she told me about it. And we began talking about history and our memories of the period of the Khmer Rouge regime, and that gave rise to the idea of doing a film. It was clear right from the beginning that Claudia Fenz would not herself play any role in the film, but my interest had been sparked.

What interests you about the topic of international justice?
Susanne Brandstätter: Of course, the human rights aspect interests me. In the last film, I dealt primarily with the problems arising from differing perceptions of justice, as well as with the question of how a tradition, a past, can wind up conflicting with a concept of justice. Here, with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, it's also a question of morals, which go beyond just the case of Cambodia. We're talking about universal questions such as: what made it possible that a genocide or mass murder like this take place? What are the root causes? Where does personal responsibility begin, and where does it end? It isn't enough just to have a leader or a small group of people with political power who order a mass extermination – an entire population has to be involved. In Cambodia, it looks as if everyone was either a perpetrator, a victim, or a refugee. In principle, the whole country was a concentration camp, as unimaginable as that may sound. But between perpetrators and victims there is also a gray zone with all different shades of gray. In many cases, the former perpetrators became victims themselves, when the Khmer Rouge began killing their own cadres, due to the different factions that had formed. The regime became completely paranoid. Cambodian society still bears a lot of scars from this period. There are lots of people from both sides who have severe psychological problems.

Exactly who is on trial in these proceedings?
Susanne Brandstätter: One of the figures is Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the former director of S-21, known also as Tuol Sleng prison, where many Khmer Rouge cadres, as well as a great number of ordinary citizens, were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Before they were killed, they were forced to make a confession – usually to the effect that they were CIA spies. During the most recent shoot, I filmed a man who'd suffered at the hands of this regime, narrowly escaping death several times. To this day, he doesn't know what the term "CIA" means. Just imagine: people were forced to admit to being CIA spies without ever knowing what it meant! All they knew was: that?s the enemy. The Duch trial is Case 1, which should be concluded next year. Case 2 will bring four people before the court at the same time. These are the political figures: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith. Pol Pot is unfortunately deceased, as is Ta Mok, and the defendants who will soon appear before the Tribunal are already very old. Duch is the youngest – he's now 67 – and the others are all over 80. Many fear that, if Case 2 should last too long, there never will be a verdict.
Once it had been decided to do the film project and you were able to begin your research, how did you go about taking on Cambodia's present-day reality? What questions did you have going into the film project?
Susanne Brandstätter: This time, I wanted to approach the topic from an entirely different perspective?putting the focus less on the actual trial, as in the last film, but rather on how the Tribunal is being perceived by the general public. Especially since the Cambodian government strongly propagated the Khmer Rouge Tribunal as being, above all, an initiative for the people. And this is also being demanded by the international community, that the people be done justice. I?d like to show what effect this kind of tribunal can have on a populace. I also asked myself how history would be rewritten in the interest of the Cambodian government. But when I actually began my research in Cambodia, it quickly became clear to me that that is by no means the critical question. A lot of people place great hope in the Tribunal, others not so much. But every Cambodian I talked to was obsessed with the distressing question of "why"? What's extremely important to these people is the question how such a thing could have happened in the first place. They themselves don't understand it. Neither the victims nor the perpetrators.

What does the general public hear about these trials?
Susanne Brandstätter: There is an outreach program to make the Tribunal known to the public. The main hearings are televised one-to-one every day that they take place. The problem is that even for a schooled person, it can be extremely difficult to follow a trial like this. You have to have a certain amount of background information and be able to follow the legal jargon used in court - for people with little formal education, that's extremely difficult. Once a week, a half-hour summary is broadcast on television with the support of the Tribunal. The proceedings are also followed on the radio. All this is supplemented by various outreach events, plus there are also countless NGOs doing informational work. What complicates informing the public is that Cambodia has a predominantly rural population with a proportionately large number of people who are illiterate or who can?t read particularly well. You have to remember that under the Khmer Rouge regime schools were closed, books were burned and most of the educated class exterminated. It takes quite a while to recover from something like that.

How did you select your protagonists and, in general, attempt to find a cinematic approach to these issues?
Susanne Brandstätter: My idea was to find families that don't represent just one standpoint. I sought out families that include survivors of the regime, as well as members of the young generation up to the age of 26 – the generation that was born afterwards and knows nothing or almost nothing about what was going on back then. You have to realize that it was taboo to speak about the subject in public; nothing was taught about it in schools. The most that many young people knew about it was that the regime had existed and that they had lost relatives, nothing more. Many of those who had lived through it told their children practically nothing at all, for all sorts of reasons. Either because they were extremely traumatized, because they didn't want to burden their children with the knowledge of these terrible events, or because they were afraid to talk about it, partly for well-justified reasons, partly due to their trauma and their distrust of others. There are former Khmer Rouge members occupying various influential positions throughout the country even today.

Were you successful in getting both victims and perpetrators in front of your camera?
Susanne Brandstätter: Yes. I wasn?t intending to find families who'd suffered really horrible fates, but rather average families. At first, my go-betweens who supported me in my research went looking for particularly extreme cases. I did speak with these people to deepen my knowledge, but I didn't feel that they were the right choice for the film itself. I finally succeeded in finding two families in Cambodia and an exiled family living in Paris. That creates a very interesting contrast. These three families all have offspring under 26, who are only now? for the first time because of the Tribunal – learning what happened, by confronting their parents and neighbors with their questions. Many young people didn't initially believe their parents at all, because they hadn't heard about what happened anywhere else. Some of the youths thought that their parents were just making up horror stories in order to get them to eat up their rice, help with the housework etc.. And those youths who perhaps did believe what they were told, didn't dare to ask questions, for fear of exacerbating their parents' pain.

The title The Future's Past is chosen so as to directly address the confrontation of two generations. Does your film let the past speak out more, or more the "future",  personified by the younger generation?
Susanne Brandstätter: I don't think you can look at the one without the other. This topic is most often dealt with by concentrating on the past. I wanted to focus on the present in order to make clear that this coming to terms with the past now, will have a very strong influence on the future. The way the young generation deals with it now will basically form the way people perceive what happened and this will have an enormous impact. Even if the past gets swept under the rug. Dealing with it or not dealing with it - both have a big influence on the future. Essentially, this is relevant for all of us. We are all confronted with problems like these?whether in a historical context or within our own private spheres.

Austrian society, quite similarly, faces dealing with the crimes of National Socialism. Have you noticed differences in how history is dealt with?
Susanne Brandstätter: I think that there are very strong parallels; in both countries, a lot has been sublimated up to now. In Cambodia, some perpetrators have admitted to what they did and ask themselves why it happened. However, the majority of them excuse their behavior by saying: "I couldn't do anything else; I had to follow orders." There are also a great number of people in Cambodia who don't want anyone to find out about their involvement in these kinds of acts. What's good about the Tribunal is that it makes the topic public, so that people are starting to talk about it. Up until now, silence and denial have been very widespread phenomena in Cambodia. Often enough, not even the victims are willing to speak, let alone the perpetrators, who represent all types of characters as in the Nazi regime. There were, above all, a huge number of collaborators without whom the whole thing couldn't have worked. And there were spies everywhere, even hiding beneath the floors of the raised houses at night - informants who claimed that they had heard something said against the regime. It went so far that couples, who had been forced to marry were spied upon to make sure that the marriage was really consummated. If it hadn't been, the information was reported and both were sent for "reeducation", which generally meant that they were executed. The people often went along willingly, thinking that they actually would be attending some sort of course; they had no idea what actually awaited them.

Do you have the impression that the victims have a need for compensation?
Susanne Brandstätter: Yes, but the people's expectations are often unrealistic. They don't correspond with what the Tribunal is actually able to do. There's a discrepancy. Effort is being made to clarify that there cannot be financial compensation, because the total sum would be immeasurable, making it impossible to implement. Those who are less well informed still imagine they might receive some financial compensation. What is being talked about now are other forms of compensation, in terms of symbolic acts - such as a formal apology, a monument, schools, hospitals, care for the sick, things like that. But we don't know what will actually happen.

How does your work as a filmmaker look there? Do you attend the trials?
Susanne Brandstätter: In the courtroom there are five cameras that capture everything; we're not able to bring our own cameras into the courtroom itself. But on the Tribunal grounds, I'm filming the whole media-hype. It was important to me to show how the trial is being conveyed to the general public, that is, how it is being communicated. It's not difficult to get access to the Tribunal. You just have to obtain accreditation and then you can get in. The presence of the international media increases only when there are certain highlights - at the opening session, and when very well-known witnesses take the stand. Otherwise, I attended on days when there was hardly anyone there. That was to be expected. The trial has been going on for a long time now. Duch pleaded guilty right from the beginning, but the case is still extremely interesting because, despite his guilty plea, he is attempting to defend himself and ends up speaking a lot. He's basing his defense on having been forced to act in an extreme situation, because his life would have been at risk otherwise. He tries again and again to prove that he can assume no responsibility for his actions. In return, the state prosecutors sometimes attempt to use trick questions to prove that it wasn't so. Observing Duch as a personality is really quite fascinating.

Can you describe the families, which you've selected?
Susanne Brandstätter: In all three of my families, there is a young person who wants to find out what happened and why. 20-year-old Sopha, for example, had never been particularly interested in the past. When the proceedings started, her mother began volunteering at an NGO that informs the public about the Tribunal; this instigated Sopha to begin asking her parents and acquaintances questions. As her knowledge grows, she is forced to reflect on what she has learned - including what it means for her personally. The families with whom I'm filming were not perpetrators, but one of their neighbors was. Sophany, one of the young protagonists, who is a monk, went to him several times and questioned him on camera. In Cambodia, it is usual for young men to go to the pagoda and become monks for a certain period of time. Sometimes they do it for six or twelve months, but Sophany has already spent eight years at the pagoda, where he's also finishing his schooling. As a monk, one is a person of respect, and it's this fact, which makes his confrontation with the perpetrator so interesting. You witness this man's ambivalence, as he attempts to excuse his actions before Sophany and himself, and then, suddenly confesses and says he has sinned. This inner conflict is gripping.

Why did you decide to include a family of Cambodian exiles?
Susanne Brandstätter: It seemed difficult to address certain aspects from within the country itself. I thought that a family living abroad might be able to express another, critical and more distanced view of the happenings. The two parents had fled in the seventies; the father had been a soldier in Lon Nol's defeated army. He escaped along with his family on the day after the troops had marched into Phnom Penh, and they were lucky enough to make it to France, where they built a new existence. The film shows the parents and their three daughters: the eldest, she's around 40, and the two younger ones, both born in Paris, who are now 21 and 23. These two are very modern, open-minded, bold young Parisians who absorbed Cambodian tradition at home, but at the same time developed into strong Western women who interact with their parents in a thoroughly "Western" way. Cambodian society is so hierarchical that it is difficult for the younger generation to question their elders. The Paris family represents modern parents who have raised their daughters to become very self-confident, critically thinking young women.

What period of time do the actual film shoots cover, and how long have you been working on the project altogether?
Susanne Brandstätter: I began researching back in 2006, without a production company, and my research intensified when I decided to work with Amour Fou. That is when I went to Cambodia for the first time for about one and a half months, and in my last week of research, my crew joined me. We had to see these families in front of the camera, had to see whether they felt comfortable being filmed, since this is an "observational documentary." For this kind of film, it's essential that people behave naturally on camera. Finding the right families wasn't easy. The people there are very friendly, but when it boils down to spending a long time making a film, things start to get difficult. These people lived through experiences that are difficult to speak about. So you have to find people for whom coming to terms with the past is a concern. Sometimes I came upon young people who were extremely interested, but their parents didn't want to talk about the regime – either because they preferred to forget their experiences, or because they were afraid of running into trouble with the authorities. And then I had cases, which were just the opposite, where the parents would have liked very much to talk about their experiences, but the young people didn't want to participate. Getting access to people was possible only through intermediaries whose trust I'd won, and who introduced me to the families as a filmmaker and then asked whether they'd be willing to speak with me. We weren't even talking about actually filming with them at that point, but at least the door had been opened. Since then, I?ve developed a really good relationship with these families. But even so, the preparation for each shooting phase always starts from scratch. Many things have to be re-clarified, since several months often pass between shoots.

How are the shoots themselves going?
Susanne Brandstätter: I usually arrive there two or three weeks before the team, and as soon as the team joins me, we film for three weeks. So far, we've had a week of research shoots and two longer shooting phases in Cambodia. Working there is very difficult. Living conditions in rural areas are for the most part quite rudimentary, and the country's climate makes things very strenuous. It's a combination of heat and humidity. We even had to film during the hottest part of the hot season, when usually nobody there works, in a tiny provisional hut with a corrugated tin roof where we had to cover every opening due to the light situation. It was like being in an oven.
And unexpected things happen again and again. After the first research shoot, I met with one of my protagonists, who lives in Phnom Penh, but whose parents live in the country. When I phoned with them from Phnom Penh, they mentioned that they had remodeled their house a bit and invited me to a housewarming party. When I got there with the crew, I was totally shocked: their entire home in which we had filmed before - a pretty, traditional house-on-stilts - had been torn down and rebuilt only in a very rudimentary fashion, and the housewarming party had been postponed indefinitely. It's a shock when your entire filming motif is simply no longer there. But things like that happen, that's documentary filmmaking, it's real life?and anyway, the building progress shows very clearly how time passes.

When will you be shooting in Cambodia again?
Susanne Brandstätter: Around the time when the verdict is proclaimed. I'll be going there a little before, and the team will be joining me for the announcement of the verdict. Following that, we?ll be filming the reactions of our families and the public there. That should be during the first half of 2010.

Do you feel that you've gotten closer to answering the question of "why"?
Susanne Brandstätter: These horrible experiences seem so very far away to us. But they're really not that far off at all. I went into this film project with ideas, but with even more questions. One asks oneself how humans can be so inhuman. Yes, I have gotten closer to the "why." There are identifiable patterns. I believe that it's also about our being able to develop antennae in order to recognize these patterns, these dangers - we have to realize that societies are very fragile and that regimes of terror aren't only possible in far-away places. When the relevant factors converge, this can happen anywhere.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
October 2009