Brother Number One
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 4th March 2012
As anyone who’s been there will tell you, Cambodia isn’t just the place for a cheap, hot, Asian holiday. The country carries scars from a tragic past that happened within most of our lifetimes, as a quarter of the population of eight million were killed, whether by starvation, overwork or literal “smashing”, by their leader Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
New Zealand 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 for us in New Zealand 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 sparse. The Cambodians are stoic. 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 has so much compassion and grace that the audience is not left feeling desolate by the end. Optimistically, one hopes that as people see this film, and appreciate the depths of horror inflicted upon the Cambodian people, we will be mobilised into a better way of being. For the Hamills, the sharing of their anguish may hopefully provide some sort of catharsis.