In 1971, François Bizot, a French anthropologist studying Buddhism in Cambodia, was captured by the Khmer Rouge not far from Angkor Wat temple. He was held captive for three months in a detention centre, where he was interrogated by Kaing Guek Eav, a young, idealistic revolutionary, who would later become infamous as the overseer of Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp and better known as Comrade Duch. As the only Westerner to leave a Khmer Rouge detention centre alive, Bizot was spared execution on Duch’s insistence that he was not a CIA agent.
In 2003, Bizot put this incredible story to paper and published his recollections of life before, during and after the Khmer Rouge in the memoir, The Gate. Now, 11 years later, his memoir has been adapted for the big screen. Directed by the influential French film director Régis Wargnier, best known for the classic Southeast Asian movie Indochine, which won a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as an Academy Award in the same category.
21 years ago you directed Indochine, a film set in Vietnam, does the Southeast Asia region have an attraction for you?
I wouldn’t say so. I have directed films about many countries and regions in the world. First and foremost, I was very fond of Bizot’s book. I read it just before it was published and at that time, I think Bizot went through some uneasy feelings about writing his story, because maybe he had no intentions of writing about those events. But, I think, he felt obliged to because previously he thought Duch was dead and then one day he heard Duch is alive. So everything came back inside him and he thought, ‘I have to write about what happened to me’.
When I first met him, he never thought he would become a writer; he was very reluctant to write and he especially didn’t think he could become a movie hero. So we couldn’t make it at that moment. He was unsure, he had no idea of the world of cinema and how people would behave. He tried to get advise from writers, but nothing happened at that time. And I thought I had no right to push as well.
But I kept he book with me, I gave it to friends and years later when we heard that the trial of Duch was going to begin, and Duch is the first person to be judged, I went to see Bizot and at that time he said, ‘OK, let’s do it’.
It is also important that a decade after his book, the story had changed. There was one more episode to add – when Bizot and Duch met again at the trial.
Did Francois Bizot have any role on the film?
No, but what he did he offer for us to meet one of his very good friends, Antoine Audouard, who is a writer and publisher. And Antonie offered to work with me on the screenplay. However, he had no experience of writing for films but he was very keen to do it. So I tested him, and I could see he was very smart and he quickly learnt how to write on a screenplay, which is very different from the what he was used to. But he was passionate – because Bizot is his friend – and Bizot felt easy because there was someone close to him in the process. He felt he wouldn’t be betrayed and his thoughts wouldn’t be betrayed. So it went very well.
And what were Bizot’s thoughts after watching it?
His response was OK. He said in a very honest way: when I wrote the story years later it really happened. Maybe through that process my imagination altered my memories. And then your screenplay is different from my book and your movie is different from the screenplay. But I am fine with it.
What changes did you make from the book?
The book is very big so we had to make some choices. In a way I sacrificed a lot of the book. Part of the book, which is referred to in the title The Gate, takes place in the French embassy in 1975. However, the first part of the book – his detention in the Khmer Rouge camp – was much more interesting for me.
Also, in the part at the French embassy Duch is not there – but in the film we have included him. But there was another guy, Niem, the same person, the same mentality, the same speeches, the same language. So we asked Bizot if we could replace Niem with Duch in order to keep the storyline. And Bizot said fine, because he was very similar. So that allowed us to build up the story about the two guys – which was mainly what I was interested in.
So we based the storyline on the relationship between Bizot and Duch in three episodes: the detention camp, the embassy and years later, when they meet again.
Can you expand on the two character’s interaction?
It is a film about two characters predominately, but it is much deeper than the two characters. What is left of a human being in torture? What part of humanity do people have left? Did Duch lose his? Because some people try to avoid these important questions and say that the Khmer Rouge were not human beings. Of course they are human beings. The question is how do they become killers. Because when they started, they had the best intentions.
And it’s the same for any extremism and totalitarianism, political or religious. Look at the poster of the film, take away the Khmer Rouge and put in photos of the men in black scarves and jellabahs, and it’s the same extremism we see today.
The question is: when do they lose their common sense or heart. You can see the relationship between Bizot and Duch, its incredible. When they met again during Duch’s trial, the first question Duch asked was, ‘How is your wife?’ and ‘How is your daughter?’.
My main problem is that I don’t have the word for their friendship – you cannot be a friend with someone who has attached you to a chain for four months.
And for Bizot, the main question is how can you deal with your life when you owe your life to a mass killer. We hear Bizot saying, ‘I owe my life to a man who has executed thousands’. To me, that’s the story. Duch saved Bizot’s life twice. He is the only man he has spared.
Were you the only director interested in making the film?
It took time between reading the book and thinking about the movie. But I wasn’t the only French director interested in the book, but it took time and at that stage you had to adapt to make choices.
You worked with Rithy Panh, the Cambodian film director and screenwriter, how was that?
Rithy Panh welcomed us here wonderfully. His work on the film was more like a producer; introducing us to the crew, to the people he has been working with, actors, technicians, and the rest. Anything we need – like archives – and any question we had he was always there to answer. But he said, ‘it’s your film’.
A long time ago, he even considered himself adapting the book, and he stopped because he had the feeling that it was a European point of view. So he couldn’t work himself in it.
And, finally, how do you like Cambodia?
Last year I came here mid-November and we started shooting in January until early March. But I had come several times before in order to scout locations, work on the casting sessions, and the crew. Yes I like Cambodia very much, the people are very friendly, I like them very much.
Be a Part of the Story
Southeast Asia Globe is powered by members.
Membership programs will be available soon. Until then, sign up for our weekly summary of stories from the region.
Donate and support independent journalism.
Donations help us keep our journalism free and independent. Support stories from Southeast Asia that matter.