Personal journey an anecdote for greater loss

Laura’s screening
with Laura Weaser

Brother Number One. Out now in selected cinemas. Directed by Annie Goldson.

Bookended by a brother’s journey, Brother Number One leads the viewer through Cambodian history as told by Whakatane born Rob Hamill’s own experiences. Tracing his brother Kerry’s last steps, ‘Brother’ follows Rob’s personal struggle with loss as well as the loss of thousands of Cambodians who have been affected by the Khmer Rouge.

One of the last images of Kerry Hamill before he was captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1970s.

Brother Number One explores one of the ‘forgotten’ genocides of the 20th century, examining how and why nearly two million Cambodians could be killed by an ultra-Maoist regime known as the Khmer Rouge. The documentary focuses on Rob’s trip to Cambodia in 2009 as he seeks justice and answers for his eldest brother Kerry who was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1978 along with two sailing companions. 

Rob’s own story is one of loss and heartbreak. Stepping foot for the first time in Cambodia we see this man breakdown into tears at the thought that he just had his picture taken – the first thing that happened to Kerry when he sailed into Cambodia before he died.

But Rob’s journey is really a bookend, an anecdote for the thousands of Cambodians who were affected by the Khmer Rouge but are unable to speak. Recollections from Cambodian residents who were lucky enough to survive the Toul Sleng – the genocide prison where thousands were tortured and forced to confess their plans against the Government – paint a vivid picture of a time in Cambodian history often overlooked. I will confess it was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me.

Like many Kiwis, I feel safe and secure, tucked away at the bottom of the world. Brother is enlightening and I hope many others watch this film to learn something of a violent and dangerous part of history.  It is interesting to note, Rob himself emailed me and said “when I began this project back in 2006, many New Zealanders didn’t know about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, yet those same people would have told you plenty about Hitler and the Nazis. It is our hope that schools and the public take up the opportunity to see the film”. He has since developed an NCEA study guide for English and History classes, available on the film’s website.

The film is simple and straightforward. We follow Rob every step of the way as he retraces steps, looks for clues and pieces together his statement for court. There is nothing contrived or forced about Rob – he is your every-day Kiwi bloke but the journey he takes us on is one of incredible loss and devastation, one that your average Kiwi family to never expected to bear.

What really affected me was the idea of uncertainty. Despite bringing Duch, one of the many in charge of Khmer Rouge war crimes, to some kind of justice, there is no real certainty for Rob just what took place in the events leading up to Kerry’s death. It is fragmented history, put together by vague recollections from 20 plus years ago and uncertain images. As Rob drops a Pounamu stone into the ocean where Kerry was taken prisoner, there is a lingering look into the sea, leaving the question open: has Rob truly been able to put Kerry’s murder to rest? I hope Rob’s journey wasn’t in vain, and he found some kind of solace in his own journey.


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