Benjamin Rigley casts a light on the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide with his documentary, A Pearl Rouge

07 Jun 2019

Benjamin Rigley is a final year Digital Film Production student at SAE Glasgow and a Scottish filmmaker who focuses on music videos, and documentaries in particular.

We spoke to Benjamin about his documentary, A Pearl Rouge, which deals with the complex subject matter of the Cambodian Genocide.

What happened in the Cambodian genocide?

Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975, with the goal of turning the country into a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. They immediately began emptying people from the capital, Phnom Penh, into labour camps in the countryside, where physical abuse, disease, exhaustion, and starvation were widespread.

Killing fields were set up all over the country, where the Khmer Rouge took people to be executed if they were unfit to work in the farms or had committed a crime against the regime. Between 1975 and 1979, they caused the death of an estimated 1.8 million people (a quarter of the Cambodian population).  

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was in charge at M13, a Khmer Rouge-controlled prison, for four years before being appointed by the Angkar - "the Organisation" - to the S21 centre in Phnom Penh. As party secretary from 1975 to 1979, he commanded the Khmer Rouge killing machine in which at least 12,280 people perished, according to the remaining archives - but many, many more were killed across Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations.

At the time, the horrific events in Cambodia did not receive much international focus. The 1984 Hollywood film, The Killing Fields, brought the plight of the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention.

On 2 January 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to try the members of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for the Cambodian genocide. In 2009, Duch became the first leader of the Khmer Rouge organisation to be brought before an international criminal justice court.

A Pearl Rouge

Benjamin spent a year in Cambodia before he came to SAE and was inspired by his Kmer friends’ stories about Cambodia’s past. He said: “I was excited to come home and share these stories, but nobody could quite imagine it. That’s why I decided to make a documentary about it.”  






He spent a month in Cambodia in May shooting the film, and hopes to move there after graduation, where he plans to work on another feature length documentary.

Ben said: “It’s been very much a solo project, except for the production stage as I couldn’t afford additional crew members. Socheata Seng got my first ad, my sound recordist is Bong Kha and I was connected to them by Sum Sithen.”  

Benjamin added: “The documentary focuses on the fall of Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. This is when the Khmer Rouge took everyone to the ‘killing’ fields. It also looks at Phnom Penh’s past, exploring how it was such a thriving city.”

The documentary is titled A Pearl Rouge, as the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh was considered the pearl of South East Asia.

Benjamin feels that The Killing Fields, the Hollywood film which brought the tragedy of the genocide to the world’s attention in the 1980s, is a decent representation of the events that took place. Benjamin was inspired by the documentary film director and screenwriter Rithy Panh, who is a survivor of the genocide. He said: “Rithy Panh is one of my favourite directors. His story is incredible, and before I went to Cambodia for the first time, I watched The Missing Picture and felt heavily inspired. His interview style is truly incredible, just look at his interview with Duch.”  

We asked Benjamin what his strategies were for coping with the sensitive nature of the subject matter, and he said that spending time with the interviewees and immersing himself in the environment really helped him process the tragedies.

One of the subjects Benjamin interviewed for the documentary was Chum Mey (above), one of seven survivors of the S-21 Toul Sleng camp, where 20,000 Cambodians were sent for execution and imprisonment.

Another documentary subject is Youk Chang (below), a Khmer Rouge survivor who is also the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). DC-Cam have played a vital role in helping to ensure that the documentary is factually and historically accurate, as their guidance has helped inform Benjamin’s research.

The film is set for release around August - September, later this year.

Follow Benjamin on Instagram and YouTube to stay up to date with the project.

Visit Benjamin’s website to find out more.