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Brother Number One

Kerry Hammill (scene from movie)
Olympic rower Rob Hamill confronts his brother’s Khmer Rogue killers.

Directed by Annie Goldson

This is a film that tests the very limits of mankind’s ability to forgive, to seek justice and to repent. A courageous story that needed to be told and is here told incredibly well.

The Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who led the 1970s genocide that killed millions, was known as ‘brother number one’. Kerry Hamill was also ‘brother number one’, being the eldest child of his loving and adventurous Whakatane family.

In 1978, Kerry was on a once-in-a-lifetime sailing trip from Australia up through south-east Asia—a journey intended to eventually take him and his buddies around the world. That was until they encountered a storm, were blown off course and ended up taking shelter in an island on the Cambodian coast.

Suddenly one night they heard gun shots. One of the young men onboard Kerry’s yacht was shot dead (he was the lucky one), while Kerry and his other friend were taken prisoner by the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge. In prison they were forced to ‘testify’ to being CIA spies and were then tortured, starved and eventually killed.

Three decades later, this incredibly moving documentary follows Kerry’s youngest brother, Rob (the famous Kiwi Olympic rower who broke the record for paddling the Atlantic), back to Cambodia. He retraces his brother’s steps and takes part in the war crimes trial of his brother’s killer. And this is where the narrative becomes truly intriguing.

His brother’s killer, Comrade Duch, the commander of the prison camp, has since testified to becoming a born again Christian. Living an otherwise normal existence, Duch has worked for World Vision and has seemingly had his life turned around since the atrocities of his early years. However, his new found faith will not release him from the earthly consequences of his actions of yesteryear. 

In court, Duch pleads guilty to his crimes, but must still provide an account of everything he did and stand face-to-face with the families of his victims, including Rob Hamill (one of the only Westerners to testify at the tribunal).

As you can imagine, for Rob, this is an incredibly tense and emotional process. Along the way he opens up his heart on camera and provides a thorough insight into the depth of darkness his family has travelled since the death of their ‘brother number one’. Rob wrestles with his desires to move on and forgive, and it is a credit to the man that he would do this so courageously on film.

Despite the immense weight of the subject matter, the documentary is beautifully and sensitively put together. It cuts between Rob’s testimony in the courtroom to interviews with both Cambodian victims and their perpetrators; stories of beautifully brave survival and also of terrible denial and deception.

This is no light-hearted, munch-your-popcorn film—you’ll need tissues. But it will open your eyes to a painfully recent horror and draw a connecting line to it that feels ever so close to home. A must see.   

  • Review by Hayden Shearman

Director: Annie Goldson
Rating: M (some content may disturb)
Genre: NZ Documentary
Duration: 1hr 40mins
See www.brothernumberone.co.nz for more info.