Rob Hamill is a champion Kiwi rower and well known in New Zealand for his world-record-breaking feats, including crossing the Atlantic in just 41 days (alongside the late Phil Stubbs). He has also represented his country at World Championship events and even the Olympic games back in 1996. But what is less well known about Hamill is the tragedy his family suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge with his brother Kerry being captured and killed in the late 1970s in Cambodia. Brother Number One is the story of Hamill retracing his brother’s final weeks alive, of his testifying at a present-day war crimes trial for the man responsible for Kerry’s death (and thousands of others) and of getting some degree of closure.
I interviewed Hamill last Sunday night for almost a full hour and for someone who was just 14 when his older brother went missing, whose family spent two years not knowing whether he was dead or alive, who lost another brother to suicide when the news came through of Kerry’s death, I couldn’t believe how gentle a soul he seemed to be. Which may seem a strange thing to say about someone who had the bravery to track down former Khmer Rouge bosses and the courage to show himself emotional on a big-screen, not to mention everything it took for him to row the Alantic in what may’ve been a pimped-out row-boat, but a row-boat none-the-less.
I speak to bitter and angry people all the time on-air, but despite everything, Hamill has neither of those qualities. Watching Brother Number One you learn of the excitement of Kerry’s sailing trip from Darwin, up through South East Asia enroute to Bangkok. It is thought a storm blew them off course and into Cambodian waters at a time when any foreigner was presumed to be a spy, most likely CIA. One of the unexpected moments of humour in the film is when Kerry’s bogus confession is read out, one which contains several jokes about his spy training in New Zealand and his teachings from the likes of Colonel Sanders.
Crucially, Brother Number One isn’t just the story of Kerry Hamill and his death. The Khmer Rouge murdered as many as 1.7 million Cambodians with a further 1.3 million dying from poverty and starvation and the film, largely through Hamill’s local interpreter, has a strong telling of the Cambodian side of the genocide and its ramifications more than 30 years on.
It’s a sad film, one in which I heard people in the cinema openly sobbing. But it is also uplifting in an understated way and without giving away the ending, it concludes with a peaceful, full-circle moment from Hamill. For someone like me with a deep bond to Cambodia as a country of steaming jungles, breathtaking 1000 year old temples, French colonial architecture, compelling history (both tragic and triumphant), Anchor beer, watermelon fruit shakes, sweet and generous people and poverty to put everything in your life in perspective, it is essential viewing.