In terms of the production value and acting, the film is excellent. Raphaël Personnaz is well cast as Bizot, and it is difficult to see Personnaz as any other character after watching The Gate. Cambodian actor Kompheak Phoeung has the challenging task of playing a mass murderer and torturer, Duch. Phoeung is intense and yet manages to capture that ‘twinkle’ in Duch’s eye that Bizot experienced. The script does not, however, manage to allow Phoeung to adequately delve into the complexities and moral contradictions that Duch was dealing with at that time, which were unearthed through his relationship with Bizot. Cambodia is a beautiful country, and a wonderful setting for a film, with its lush jungle and mix of local and colonial architecture.
While the film is compelling, it does not remain faithful to the memoir. This issue of mutated film adaptations of books is not new and, indeed, we cannot expect nor require that a film will remain completely faithful to a book on which it is based. Yet in this case, the changes between book and film are so significant as to diminish from the film what is so crucial about the book. Thus the film must be considered as an adaptation and used as a source only with consideration for the differences. In the adaptation, Bizot’s own experiences are lost to drama. The film instead privileges the perpetrator over the resister, who is the subject of the book and the film.
One of the most important mis-portrayals in the film is the actions of Duch when Bizot is held prisoner. Bizot did not go quietly, and throughout the book, during his capture and time at the embassy, he never took violent conduct lying down. His outbursts of protest were proof that resistance can work, as his protests were almost always acceded to, when the recipient of the protest was shocked that someone was standing up to them and to the system. In the book, Bizot demands and, for the most part, he receives. This included a bowl to eat from, and the right to wash in the stream near the camp. In the film, Bizot does not ask for this, but instead it is the benevolent Duch who simply permits these. In not capturing this side of Bizot, the film not only portrays Duch as more generous and compassionate than he was, but it does not depict Bizot the resister, nor highlight the importance of standing up against human rights abuses and atrocities.
The second part of the book, dealing with Bizot’s time at the embassy in 1975, is barely touched upon in the film. This second element of Bizot’s story is quite unique, with true anxiety and horror in the situation. In The Gate, Bizot recounts many dramatic and tense events with various people at the embassy who would have made for excellent cinema, such as the Cambodian woman refused entry who then wanted to throw her baby over the fence so he could be saved. In the film, the refugees who were initially in the embassy compound are briefly referred to, and made to leave. The consul is portrayed as lackadaisical in attitude towards this event. However, Bizot recounts that the French refused to evacuate the refugees for some time, until the Khmer Rouge threat to use force was escalated. The consul was angry that the Khmer Rouge did not respect the right of asylum, did not want to give in to the Khmer Rouge demands, and was distressed at being unable to save the people (numbering around 2000) in the compound.
The lack of emphasis on the second part of Bizot’s story also leaves English-language viewers who have not read the book wondering why the film is called The Gate. The French title, Le Temps des Aveux (Confession Time), is more appropriate, as we see Duch’s persistence in trying to make Bizot confess to being a CIA spy. Yet it is the second part of the book where readers come to understand the significance of the gate, in its role as protector and betrayer of the people in the embassy compound. Viewers of the film do not experience this, and thus the English title seems completely random.
The fabrication of facts and storylines in the film seems a strange choice by the filmmaker, given the startling events of real life that Bizot experienced. It also means that Bizot’s story is not faithfully told to the broader audience who will see the film but not read the book.
It is important that film is used to tell the stories of genocides and other mass atrocities. Yet it is also important that the victim’s experiences are told faithfully, otherwise we run the risk of myth-making. Whether we like it or not, popular culture impacts societal interpretations of real-life events, and events as important as the Cambodian genocide deserve greater attention.
MELANIE O’BRIEN is a postdoctoral research fellow, TC Beirne School of Law, at the University of Queensland.