Review: Brother Number One
Brother Number One
Reviewed by Helen Martin
NZ 2011, Documentary, BNO & Pan Pacific Films in association with TV3, NZ On Air and NZFC dir/co-prod/co-editor Annie Goldson co-dir Peter Gilbert co-prods Rob Hamill, James Bellamy DPs Peter Gilbert, Jake Bryant ed James Brown sound design Dick Reade music The Sound Room, David Long, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead with Rob Hamill 97 minutes
From conception to direction to cinematography to sound design to musical score to editing to participation of its subjects, this brilliant, artful documentary is the result of the combined efforts of many extremely talented and creative people. It is also, unmistakably, a film to ensure Annie Goldson (Georgie Girl, Sheilas: 28 Years On, An Island Calling, Punitive Damage) remains among the roll call of the world’s most consummate documentary filmmakers.
Brother Number One unfolds as a compelling, multi-layered narrative with all the qualities of a deeply moving and intimate drama – a finely-wrought dramatic arc, complex, suffering characters, extraordinary situations, edge-of-the-seat tension and searing conflict – which only the most hardened cynic could watch dry-eyed.
The incitement is the gruelling, retrospective story of Kerry Hamill, the eldest son in a tight-knit Whakatane family who, sailing the world in the Foxy Lady in 1978, was blown off course into Kampuchean waters. When the yacht was spotted by Khmer Rouge soldiers, Stuart, the Canadian on board the double-ended sloop, was shot on sight. Horribly, Kerry and co-sailor John, an English friend, were captured, tortured for two months in S21, “the mother of all torture centres in Cambodia” until they ‘confessed’ and were executed. A second narrative thread traces how Kerry’s distraught family processed that information over the years, most devastatingly in the suicide of Kerry’s brother John. Wrapped around this central event is the story of war-torn Cambodia, with perspectives offered by survivors of Pol Pot’s murderous regime which saw the genocide of some two million citizens.
The narrative driver is the present-day story of Kerry’s brother Rob, well known locally and internationally as a New Zealand Olympic and Trans-Atlantic rowing champion, who goes to Cambodia to make a Victim’s Statement at the War Crimes Tribunal trial of Comrade Duch (also known as Brother Number One), the prison commander who ordered the torture and killings. Rob made the journey out of respect and love, wanting to honour his brother’s memory, but he also hoped Duch might acknowledge the suffering he had caused. It is a small triumph then when, in the courtroom, he catches Duch’s eye, “I held his eye. He looked away.”
It’s typical of Hamill that he then laughs at himself for seeing this as a triumph and one of the pleasures of the film is getting to know this humble man. He is amazing to watch – articulate, unafraid of showing his vulnerability, often in tears, sometimes angry, but always gracious. He is determined to discover what happened to his brother, however painful that discovery might be, and it is through his journey, during which he meets many of those involved in and affected by the work of the Khmer Rouge, including his lovely interpreter Kulikar Sotho, that we come face to face with the capacity of human strength to overcome the banality of evil. Finally able to read Kerry’s ‘confession’ which, while absurd, contains flashes of dry Kiwi wit (with Kerry maintaining that he worked for Colonel Sanders, for example), Rob celebrates that his brother was able to hold onto his humanity.
In his determination to get to the truth and to hold someone accountable, Rob gives a vicarious voice to all the victims and their families. To date Duch is the only Khmer Rouge ‘brother’ who has admitted any guilt, although he steadily maintains he was only following orders. With no other Khmer Rouge yet convicted of the crime of genocide he has become something of a scapegoat, but it’s doubtful whether too many people will be upset when they hear his initial sentence of 19 years, on his appeal, has been changed to life imprisonment.