Since my return from Cambodia, I’ve been living something of a double life. I began a new, part-time job, which has involved getting reacquainted with the culture of the government shared office. There’s ‘Casual Friday’ – the day on which staff who wear neatly pressed shirts and pointy high heels on any other day of the week suddenly arrive in their gardening clothes. There are cheerfully aggressive notes pasted around the kitchen, about cleaning up and taking your food out of the fridge. There’s talk about work/life balance, as if ‘life’ is what’s left over after the 40-hour working week.
Meanwhile, my double is where I was physically three weeks ago. I’m making a radio program about the music that’s being made in Cambodia. So in listening to the interviews, the music, the sounds and the lovely clucking intonations of the Khmer language, I’ve been regularly transported back there.
Telling this story is daunting. Like every story about contemporary Cambodian culture, it must refer to that country’s darkest time, when nearly two million people died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. The genocide and its effects have shaped Cambodia’s present and will continue to do so for many years.
But it’s not for nothing that there is a stream of therapy – narrative therapy – in which the stories we tell ourselves are reframed, often to give us a greater sense of agency over our lives. Every day we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things. These stories become memories. They become the framework of how we view the world and our place within it. Stories are important.
I saw an extraordinary documentary as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Brother Number One tells a tragic and deeply moving story that began during those darkest years of Cambodia’s history.
The title refers both to the moniker that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot bestowed upon himself and the position in the Hamill family held by one of his victims, New Zealander Kerry Hamill, the first-born of five children.
At 26 years of age, Kerry Hamill set sail from Darwin, heading to Asia on one of those long journeys of discovery through the hippy belt. He sailed through Indonesia with a new Australian girlfriend and his Canadian friend, Stuart Glass. Thankfully, his girlfriend Gail returned to Australia, with a plan to meet Kerry in two months’ time. In the film, there is a photo of Kerry and Gail on board the yacht, smiling and suntanned. Kerry, a good looking man, looks like he’s having the time of his life. After Gail left, Kerry and Stuart picked up an English crew member, John Dewhirst, who was on his own adventure far from his home in the Yorkshire dales.
It was August, 1978. The men were sailing past Cambodia when a storm blew up around them. They had been at sea; they were young and innocent; it was the pre-Internet days – so they did not know of the horror the Khmer Rouge was unleashing on the people of Cambodia. They headed to the island of Koh Tang to shelter from the storm.
Then, a boat appeared and began firing shots at them. Stuart Glass was killed. Kerry and John were taken captive and transported to the Tuol Sleng (S21) prison in Phnom Penh. Few who entered Tuol Sleng as prisoners left alive. More than 12,000 people were tortured and killed there – including Kerry Hamill and John Dewhirst.
The documentary, made by New Zealander Annie Goldson, traces another journey from New Zealand to Cambodia – that of Kerry’s youngest brother, Rob Hamill. Thirty one years after his oldest brother arrived under arrest, Rob Hamill arrived in Phnom Penh to seek answers about his brother’s death and to testify at the trial of Comrade Duch, the Commander of Tuol Sleng.
Rob Hamill is an Olympic and trans-Atlantic rowing champion. The film builds a picture of him as a dedicated family man – dedicated to the siblings of his birth family and his late parents, Miles and Esther – and to the family he has made. The film also reveals him to be a man of incredible courage and resilience. In trying to find answers about what happened to his brother, Rob interviews survivors of Tuol Sleng and the prison photographer who takes a ghoulish pride in the quality of photographs he took of every new arrival. In court, Rob’s victim impact statement will affect the sentencing of Duch, so in the presence of the man responsible for his brother’s murder, Rob has to articulate his family’s terrible pain. In addition, Cambodians and others associated with the trial remind Rob that he is one of the few who will have the opportunity to testify. All those whose loved ones were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years.
The Hamills were a close family, from Whakatane, a little town on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island. When Kerry disappeared in 1978, people overseas could only contact each other by letter. The family endured months of silence before they found out what had befallen Kerry. How could they possibly conceive of this fate for their son and brother?
To say that this is not an easy film to watch is a great understatement. A major element of Brother Number One’s efficacy is Rob Hamill’s lack of self-consciousness about being filmed. It means you are going with him on this journey. There is one scene in which Rob reads the ‘confession’ to being a CIA spy that his brother Kerry has fabricated after months of being tortured, a letter that will lead to his death. His brother’s statement is funny. Kerry used coded words that only his family would understand. At this point, you realize how special a person was Kerry Hamill, who would have comprehended that he was signing his death warrant, but had the chutzpah to write a letter that would make his family laugh.
Brother Number One is a fine example of how one person’s story can illuminate a dense and complex narrative. Through Rob’s communication with people in Cambodia – including the translator – whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, one gains an understanding of this country’s history post World War II and how the dark years of the Pol Pot regime continue to affect Cambodians today. With the trial of Pol Pot’s lieutenants happening now, the screening of Brother Number One is timely and shows how difficult it is for the legal system to deliver peace and restitution, especially 32 years on.
Brother Number One is showing again as part of MIFF this Saturday, August 6, at 1.30pm.
Here’s the trailer for the film:
There’s also a Brother Number One website.