Brother Number One
In 2008 I went to Cambodia and, despite having travelled much of the rest of the world, I found it to be the most emotional, joyous, devastating experience of my life. No, really. Cambodia isn’t just the place for a cheap, Asian holiday. The whole country carries scars from a tragic past that happened within most of our lifetimes, as a quarter of the country’s population was killed, whether by starvation, overwork or literal “smashing”, by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
NZ producer James Bellamy has a strong connection with Cambodia, and on approaching Olympian Rob Hamill some years ago they banded together, with acclaimed documentary maker Annie Goldson, to produce an incredible story about the genocide. What brings this story close to home is that it tracks the murder of Hamill’s brother, Kerry, by the Khmer Rouge – after his boat strayed innocently into Cambodian waters, very much a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Goldson’s documentary manages the remarkable feat of being intense, powerful and desperately sad, without needing to manipulate those feelings in its audience. The soundtrack is scarce. The Cambodians are stoic. Rob Hamill allows us to follow his journey to find the truth about his brother’s fate, but he doesn’t spend the whole time crying on camera. Instead we visit the recently established ECCC (civil court) where the regime’s top players are on trial for crimes against humanity. Hamill gets the opportunity to read out a victim impact statement, 31 years after his brother’s disappearance, and as he talks the court through the devastation it brought upon his family, we are completely captivated and in turn mortified at each revelation.
Brother Number One is a necessarily hard watch, but one that holds in its hands so much compassion and grace, the audience is not left feeling desolate by the end. The hope is that more people will see this film, appreciate the depths of horror inflicted upon the Cambodian people, and mobilise us all into a better way of being. For the Hamills, at very least, my wish is that in sharing their anguish it may provide some sort of catharsis.