Rithy Panh's latest movie
The film tells the story of seven young women forced to sell their bodies in the capital Phnom Penh to help feed their families living in poverty in the Cambodian countryside. Rithy Panh was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over his country in 1975. He lost his entire family and was sent to a labour camp. After escaping to Thailand, he made for France, where he has made more than a dozen films dealing with the tragedy and consequences of the killing fields in which more than 1.5 million Cambodians died. His latest, “Le papier ne peut pas enveloper la braise” (“Paper Cannot Wrap Embers") is an intimate portrait of the women sexually exploited in a still traumatized society.
Why was it important for you to make this film?
I wanted to give these women a voice, to hear their thoughts and feelings. All too often people speak for them. You know I am often asked whether I scripted the dialogue, which disturbs me as it shows how people think they can’t speak for themselves. They can but few people ever ask them.
How did you manage to get access to the brothel?
I told them that I did not want to make a film about them, but with them. We got to know them over a period of one and a half years and I made it clear, that unlike their clients, we were not there to exploit them. It also helped that I got on with the brothel owner. I don’t condone what she does, but I sensed that as a woman, she knew what it meant to sell your body and understood how every time you do it, part of you dies.
Why did you choose to only film inside the brothel?
I wanted to concentrate on them and their daily lives rather than the sensational and sleazy world of the bars and pick up joints where they work. I did not want to make a film about prostitution but about the collective history of these women.
In the film, one of the girls recounts how an NGO persuaded her to testify against her father who raped her. She says that her only wish now is to see him walk free from prison. Do you think NGOs often impose their western values to the detriment of the Cambodians?
Yes this can happen. There are more than a thousand NGOs in Cambodia and while they are very good at emergency relief, they struggle with long term assistance. They are too fragmented and the government has failed to co-ordinate them. It is a jungle out there.
Some NGOs say reconciliation is more important than trying surviving members of the Pol Pot regime at a war crimes tribunal, what is your view?
Many NGOs want reconciliation as donor governments are keen to fund this. But that has no sense if there is still a culture of impunity. I don’t care if the former head of state, Khieu Sampham, is tried or not. That won’t bring back my family or repair the damage done. But we do need a tribunal that delivers strong judgement so that future generations can start to rebuild the country.
Do you believe in collective culpability?
No. Increasingly, perpetrators are being seen as victims. But that is wrong. People need to face up to their responsibilities.
The UN does not recognise that what happened in Cambodia was genocide. Does that frustrate you?
No one wants to call it genocide. So what? You could call it a crime against humanity. What’s the difference? Don’t forget the Khmer Rouge did more than just kill people, they took away their humanity.
What difference can showing the film here in Geneva make?
Films don’t change the world. But, it is certainly a step in the right direction if somebody changes his attitudes as a result of seeing it. It is important that the guys at the UN agencies in town come and listen to these women.
The UN estimates there are 30 thousand prostitutes in Cambodia. How do you see the future? I am more pessimistic than optimistic. It is so difficult to escape prostitution once you are in its clutches. The key is prevention, not cure. Helping poor women and children get an education is ultimately the solution.