It is 1975, and the Khmer Rouge has taken over Cambodia, inflicting unspeakable violence on the country’s citizens, who they forced into labor camps. Amidst the brutality and violence, two brothers lose nearly everything, including most of their family, and are left to fend for themselves.
On the brink of starvation — like the many millions affected by famine and hunger in the country — the pair attempt to steal some rice, and come face to face with a direct threat of the regime.
Writer-director David Siev’s intense short drama combines scenes of horrifying power with interpolations of a documentary. The two modes have an unusually direct call-and-response effect on one another, giving an almost unbearable weight to this story of two brothers’ survival amidst a brutal political regime.
In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, this would come across as clumsy and heavy-handed, but the incisive craftsmanship would be compelling enough on its own, drawing viewers in with suspense. It takes the seemingly simple act of stealing food and parlays it into an exemplary sequence of thriller-like tension, constructed with perfectly paced editing and camerawork.
But it has an even more of an impact than the typical suspense film, because the situation of the brothers is rooted in something historical and real, and its stakes of life and death were undeniably realistic for many millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge. And for the two brothers, they too come to confront a life-and-death situation, as they’re caught by a soldier of the Khmer Rouge — and face the question of just how much humanity the regime has exterminated.
For many, the Khmer Rouge is history, and reading about the ways it terrorized the Cambodian population on the page is horrifying. But “Year Zero” — which is based on a true story — not only seeks to educate viewers and remind them not to forget what happened, but it brings to life with startling emotional immediacy what it means to so hungry that someone would risk anything for just a cup of rice — and what the stakes were if they failed.
“Year Zero” ends with a postscript about the real-life story that inspired the film, bookending the short with a bit of personal documentary as the two brothers portrayed in the film retrace their father’s life and their own life in Cambodia as grown men. History, as it is revealed, is not just a story with a beginning, middle and end, but continues to live after the chapter has seemingly “ended” — haunting and echoing in the present through the trauma it has created, and in love and loyalty that endures beyond life and death.