In the early 2000s, an elderly man arrives at S-21, also known as Tuol Sleng, the infamous Phnom Penh prison of the Khmer Rouge. His name is Vann Nath, and he is returning to the site of his imprisonment and torture, which has now become a museum. He is a rare specimen, one of only seven prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng. The other 17,000 were murdered. Vann Nath survived because he could paint, but he points out that there were other prisoners who could paint, some of them more talented than him. For whatever reason, prison commandant Duch, whose long and horrific life ended only earlier this year, liked his painting best. Nath is soon joined by several former S-21 guards. I won't add any more details about what unfolds during their discussions, but there are moments that are alternately tragic, baffling, and inexplicable. And in many ways, what isn't said and what doesn't happen during these encounters are just as fascinating as what is said and what does happen.
I visited Tuol Sleng in 2009. It's not a particularly informative museum. The main focus is the structure itself (a high school that was repurposed as a prison) and the thousands of photos of the people who were murdered there. The sense of tragedy was overwhelming, but I was left wondering whether a building carried some essence of the evil that was done within its walls. And this notion served only to highlight the difficulty of bridging the gap between past and present. I never figured out an answer.