Film club: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Finbarr Bermingham visits the Curzon Cinema in Soho and gets eye-opening takes on political situations in Cambodia and Palestine

Brother Number One

Last year, I was speaking with a friend about a trip they were planning to south-east Asia. As well as the obligatory trip to Thailand, she was planning on taking in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. "Cambodia?" I said. "I wonder what sort of legacy the Khmer Rouge has left?" A look of puzzlement swept across her face. She'd never heard of the Khmer Rouge and knew nothing of Cambodia's horrible history. Of course, she was aware of the Vietnam war, but that aside, her knowledge of the region was limited to Lonely Planet eulogies on white sands and people of incomparable kindness.

Rob Hamill stands before the Human Rights Watch Film Festival with a similar anecdote. He recently asked someone on the Tube what they knew about Pol Pot, to which they responded: "Paul Potts? He's a really nice singer." Had he asked them about Hitler, of course, he would've received an informed biography. But Hamill has first hand knowledge of just how brutal Pol Pot's regime was. Over the course of a decade, up to three million people (from a population of seven million) lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, one of whom was Hamill's brother, Kerry.

Kerry Hamill, along with his friends, was yachting between islands in South East Asia in 1978, when his craft was blown into Cambodian waters by a storm. He was captured, tortured and executed at the S21 prison in Phnom Penh, the country's capital. Younger brother Rob was the only foreigner invited to testify at the trial of Kang Kek lew - or Comrade Duch, the former maths teacher who oversaw the brutality within S21 with chilling precision, and who Hamill holds personally responsible for his brother's death.

The film he cowrote and features in, Brother Number One, is a dignified, humane account of his life around the time of the trial, retracing his brother's steps around Cambodia, 31 years to the day after his brother landed in the country. He comes face-to-face with Comrade Duch, who tells the court that his orders were to "smash" the prisoners. Without being given any definition of the term, Duch took to smashing them literally: to smithereens.

The most remarkable thing about the film is Hamill's considered approach. He is angry and emotional, but never irrational. He tells the audience that he hopes to raise awareness about what happened in Cambodia. He wants us to feel something for the people who suffered but "also for the captors". For anyone considering a jaunt along the backpackers' trails of south-east Asia, Brother Number One is compelling, essential viewing.


From afar, it's easy to view the Israeli occupation of Palestine as being almost straightforward - no matter which side of the fence you sit on. Colonialists versus colonised. Terrorists versus peacekeepers. Good guys versus bad guys. It's easy to forget that both societies are as heavily nuanced as any other. Habibi - a fiction feature - is a story of forbidden love in an Islamic society (Gaza), which reminds the viewer that the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict isn't all there is to life in the region - it's just a horrible part of it.

It's a reworking of an ancient Sufi parable Majnun Layla (which apparently inspired Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) in which star-crossed lovers, inspired by one another, try to fly in the face of convention. While the ever-encroaching Israeli boundaries certainly play their part in dictating the pair's fate, the main obstacles are the cultural conventions of Palestine. The lasting sentiment is that of an educated, modern-minded couple being beaten down thwarted by tradition. They don't have enough money to be together; her family don't approve; they try to lead a rebellion through poetry, while others around them are taking up arms.

Director Susan Youssef weaves the narrative wonderfully through the political context, which eventually becomes all too apparent when a friend is assassinated by Israeli troops and the pair are hunted down by Hamas. Considered freedom fighters by some, the party and its militant wing are shown to in fact impinge upon the liberties of those they're elected to serve.

Habibi is beautiful, but grimy. Shot on a low budget in occupied Palestine, it has won a host of awards and is the most decorated film in the history of the Dubai Film Festival - one of the most illustrious events in Arab cinema. The film succeeds in illuminating - in inglorious technicolour - a region that's all too often looked upon in black and white.