Movie review: Brother Number One

By Peter Calder

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Brother Number One tells the story of Kerry Hamill, who disappeared while sailing in the gulf of Thailand. Photo / Supplied
Brother Number One tells the story of Kerry Hamill, who disappeared while sailing in the gulf of Thailand. Photo / Supplied

Auckland film-maker Goldson adds to her already-impressive CV with this unsensational but powerful documentary about one man's pilgrimage to Cambodia to bear witness for his brother, murdered in 1979 by the genocidal machine of the fanatical Pol Pot. Along the way, and not incidentally, he disinters for the viewer the horrors wrought on the Cambodian people at large.

The film's success owes much to its main "character". Rob Hamill, who achieved wide renown as a rower in the 1990s, was just a teenager when his eldest brother, Kerry, disappeared while sailing in the Gulf of Thailand. The news of his fate was a long time coming, and cruel when it came: the yacht that Kerry part-owned had inadvertently strayed into Cambodian waters and Kerry - along with two others, Canadian Stuart Glass and Englishman John Dewhirst, had been killed.

The official reason for Rob's 2009 visit is to testify - in essence to read out a victim impact statement - at the war crimes tribunal set up by the Cambodian Government and the UN. He was the only Westerner to do so and among the most electrifying sequences are the courtroom scenes, in grainy CCTV footage, in which he confronts Kang Kek Iew, aka Comrade Duch, who presided over the infamous Tuol Sleng prison where Kerry died.

But, cannily, the film ranges much more widely. The camera, wielded by American director of photography Peter Gilbert, who made the landmark Hoop Dreams, follows Hamill as he meets participants in the country's (and perhaps his brother's) horror: the naval commandant on whose watch Kerry's yacht had been attacked and seized disputes the death toll; the photographer who took mugshots of a million doomed prisoners regards his grotesque portfolio as art; the developer plans tourist resorts named after Khmer Rouge leaders. The hideous ambiguity that it's hard to tell victims from perpetrators in modern Cambodia - indeed that many people may be both - is ever-present. The title's double entendre (it was Pol Pot's nickname, and Kerry Hamill was the family's first-born) is equally resonant.

Despite its grim subject, the film is actually never gratuitously horrifying. Hamill's unpretentious blend of salt-of-the-earth honesty and emotional vulnerability adds up an inspiring figure - a man who wrestles with the urges for revenge and closure. Watching him do so makes us all bigger people somehow.

Stars: 5/5
Director: Annie Goldson
Running time: 100 mins
Rating: M (content may disturb) In English and Khmer with English subtitles
Verdict: A minor masterpiece

-TimeOu

- NZ Herald

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