A new film on the Khmer Rouge slaughter is offering hope to those looking to cope with Cambodia's murderous past

Around two million people died in Cambodia under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, wiped out by starvation, overwork, or execution. Next year the party's second in command, Nuon Chea (aka Brother Number Two), and four other high-ranking members will stand trial in a UN-backed court charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.

This makes now the perfect moment to release Enemies of the People, winner of the World Documentary Special Jury Prize at Sundance, 2010, and numerous other awards. Made in a spirit of truth-seeking, not condemnation, this moving and humane documentary, co-directed/produced by the Oxford-based filmmaker Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath of the Phnom Penh Post, not only takes us closer than ever before to the highly secretive Nuon Chea himself, but also to a number of lower-ranking Khmer Rouge officials who passed on lethal orders, and some of the people who carried them out, killing men, women and children.

The events of 1975-1979 were so horrific and so disturbing that the wound inflicted upon Cambodia's psyche remains unhealed. Even now, there are parts of the country where killers live anonymously alongside survivors of the Killing Fields and their descendents, their bloody role a shameful secret often kept from even their own families. The past has been buried, claims Lemkin, creating a backdrop of "distrust and suspicion and division" in the rural communities where most of the mass slaughter occurred. The division "just sits there like a huge, infected elephant in the room", and people attempt to "get over it with melancholy silence. But I think that's not what younger people want. That's not the way forward."

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Enemies of the People could be, however. Lemkin, formerly of the BBC, had initially gone to Cambodia to investigate an ex-acquaintance of Pol Pot's claim that the Khmer Rouge leader (who died in 1998) had been like a "rabbit in the headlights" when he came to power in 1975, such was his shock at the scale of the task ahead of him. There, Sambath became his "fixer", and Lemkin discovered that the reporter was already conducting his own interviews with ex-Khmer Rouge, in his spare time. "I realised that he was coming from a similar point of view (in the sense of] trying to understand how it was that this had happened by dealing with the people that did it, and understanding what their perceptions were at the time."

Sambath had a personal reason for wanting to know: his father was stabbed to death after refusing to give up his property to the Khmer Rouge, while his widowed mother was then forced to marry a militiaman and died in childbirth. His brother was also murdered.

"He'd not really been making a film," says Lemkin; "he'd been recording his conversations because he was worried that people wouldn't believe him." They agreed to work together, andLemkin convinced Sambath to become a central part of the film's narrative. "He just wanted to somehow get the information people were telling him out to the world, he didn't really want to be in it. (But] my feeling was that this story needed to be about him and how he dealt with this information, and how he got it, and that was the hinge into making it relevant to a younger generation."

A calm and gentle presence in the film, Sambath spent countless hours patiently getting close to his subjects. After years of not saying very much, Nuon Chea finally admitted something on camera that had been denied for 30 years: that he and Pol Pot ordered the killing of party members they considered "enemies of the people". Fearing the influence of suspected anti-revolutionaries, the purges were necessary to avert a "hijack" of "the party line", he tells Sambath. Anyone that couldn't be "re-educated" had to be "killed or destroyed". Both men were "completely out of their depth", says Lemkin. "They lacked political maturity," he says, and the only solution they could see to save their project was murder.

The dirty work was done by people like Suon and Khoun, who harrowingly describe to Sambath how they took people into the rice fields and slaughtered them. Later, Suon uses a plastic knife to demonstrate how he slit victims' throats, adding that his hand sometimes hurt so much because of the number of people he was dealing with, that he had to change his grip. The acts they recall are monstrous, but the men themselves, now racked with guilt and shame, are all too human. "We looked for the humanity amidst the inhumanity," Lemkin says.

"What we believe comes out of the film is that the trauma on the victims' side is immense, but we mustn't also forget that there is actually trauma on the perpetrators' side as well; that these people who carried out the killing weren't happy about it at the time, and it certainly hasn't stood them in good stead for dealing with their lives for the next 30 years."

Enemies of the People gives them a voice, although whether it will be heard widely in Cambodia is questionable (so far it has only been screened in a "chichi German cinema") as the government, which contains a number of former Khmer Rouge members, including the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has denied it a licence. The official (seemingly bogus) reason was that there weren't any Khmer subtitles. However, Lemkin says: "We have been told, but not on the record, that it is that opening up of Khmer Rouge history, in a kind of primary way, which is difficult for them."

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For many people, it is this very "opening up" that could lead to a kind of healing. Using Enemies of the People as a springboard, the filmmakers recently held a three-hour videoconference in Long Beach, Los Angeles, between victims of the Khmer Rouge and Suon, Khoun, and another killer who doesn't appear in the film, and Sambath. "It was the first time anything like that had ever happened," says Lemkin.

He and Sambath are now working on a sequel to Enemies of the People that will delve more deeply into the political motives behind the Khmer Rouge's actions. For now, though, they have made a film whose power, arguably, resides in its ability to make us see the humanity in people too easily dimissed as evil or demonic.

"If any of us think that this only happens because people are monsters, sub-human, or somehow different from us, we're completely kidding ourselves," says Lemkin. "These things are done by human beings, and we could do it just as well. When you recognise that, I think you are beginning a path toward meaningful reconciliation."

• Enemies of the People is in cinemas from 10 December.