Rithy Panh interview
Staring down horrors of the Khmer Rouge - by Robert Turnbull, The International Herald Tribune.
Ever since his 1994 movie "Rice People" introduced a Cambodian voice to world cinema, the director Rithy Panh has become the conscience of a nation still haunted by the tragedy of its recent past. "From the beginning I knew my work would focus on the problems in my country," Panh said. "It's been 26 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, yet we still don't fully understand why we were forced to live through these horrors."
Having lost many of his relatives to the terror, during which 1.7 million people died, Panh, 42, has returned repeatedly to the personal dramas of national decimation. "Un Soir Après La Guerre" (1998), a feature set among the detritus of postwar Phnom Penh, charts the attempts of a returning soldier to forge a new life in a decimated moral and physical landscape.
The documentary "Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy" (1996) tells the story of a couple separated and fatally tortured at S21, the regime's notorious detention center in Phnom Penh. Panh uses the victims' love letters and extracted confessions as voiceover. "When shall we two meet again," writes Sothy to his wife in a touching misquote of Shakespeare's "Macbeth.
"The same high school-turned-torture center is the subject of Panh's multi-award-winning "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" (2003). To penetrate the minds of perpetrators, Panh spent several years gaining their trust. The results make compelling viewing. There are tears of remorse, but also a chilling indifference. "I had power over the enemy - I never thought of his life," explains one interrogator.
"Most of these men still don't understand how they became killers," Panh said. "It's not simply a question of judgment. We need to find answers to these questions."Pol Pot is dead, but so far not a single person has been tried or convicted for crimes committed during that period. Panh welcomes the upcoming UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge trial, but shares his compatriots' skepticism. "Attempts at reconciliation have long been a feature of Cambodian society," he said, "but how can a nation be reconciled with those who deny responsibility?"
His objective is neither revenge nor retribution: the key to the healing process he sees as lying in the collective memory of victims. "We have no recorded images of the genocide," he said. "If we don't confront the past, we will lose these essential memories; which is why I encourage people to tell their stories. The Khmer Rouge tried to destroy our culture and our identity, but it could never be simply a process of erasing something from a blackboard."
The film's effect was profound and immediate. The former Khmer Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, saw "S21" and admitted the prison's existence for the first time, having formerly denied any knowledge of it. "These men build walls around themselves and live in ideological bunkers," Panh said.
It was that holocaust, he says, that turned him into a film director. Panh arrived in Paris as a refugee in 1980. He started making films when handed a camera at a party at the vocational college where he had enrolled as a carpenter. Panh then attended classes at Hautes Études Cinématographiques, where he shot his first documentary, "Site II," about a Cambodian border camp. Its success at Cannes in 1989 led to introductions to his current group of backers, among them the French-German television network Arte and the French network Canal Plus.
For his last film, "Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé," Panh turned his attention to Cambodia's performing artists. For him, the 10 percent of dancers, actors, and shadow puppeteers who survived the wars are the guardians of longstanding traditions that define Cambodian culture and underpin its identity. Most exist on salaries of between $10 and $15 a month, perform rarely and face an enervating daily struggle against government indifference and corruption.
The film's title refers to the popular Suramarit National Theatre in Phnom Penh, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1994, leaving its 250-person troupe homeless and depressed. Twelve years later, the theater has few prospects of being rebuilt.
Panh shows us the human costs of this tragedy. His film portrays a community that dreams of reviving Cambodia's classical repertory but prostitutes its talents in karaoke shoots and nightclubs to survive. "Soon people won't know what theater is," declares one actor. "Everyone will be watching ghost films or singing the same lyrics like parrots."
During the golden age of the '60s Cambodians enjoyed a prolific film industry with a large roster of home-grown stars and an inexhaustible supply of backers. Leading the endeavor was Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, who used the same theater to inaugurate Southeast Asia's first "international" film festival for the purpose of promoting his own films.
Since returning to live in Phnom Penh three years ago, Panh has witnessed a revival in film culture with the emergence of a new generation of technicians. But he has serious reservations. "Of course I welcome it, but we still have a long way to go if we are going to give expression to our identity rather than escape into some fantasy world." He pointed out that many of the 20 or so entries for Phnom Penh's recently begun national film festival revealed clear directorial preferences for gory thrillers and raucous action movies. "We now live in an era of media and images, but we must teach young people how to create their own images for their own personal expression," he said. Many of Cambodia's recent films, he said, are "cut like pop promos, consumed like popcorn and betray little understanding of the medium's technical possibilities."
Panh would like to see a film school and audio-visual department attached to the Royal University of Phnom Penh as the next step to encourage independent agencies and inspire local production. He acknowledges that private investors will seek quick returns, but would prefer that producers focus on expanding the industry's infrastructure and cultivating new directors.
Panh looks to other developing countries, especially in Africa, as evidence that film can help reignite pride in a culture that previous generations brought close to annihilation. But it needs significant help. His message to the government is clear: economic progress must go hand in hand with cultural development. Forget to develop culture and identity and you remain spiritually impoverished.