Three days after accepting the Un Certain Regard award for The Missing Picture at the Cannes Film Festival, Rithy Panh is back in Phnom Penh, in a small and quiet office on the first floor of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, looking exhausted.
He has a quietly expressive face and an unobtrusive way of slipping in and out of the Center, though the Bophana staff keep a close eye, and stubs of his Cuban cigars betray his movements.
When he reluctantly has his photo taken beside an ancient film projector donated to Bophana, 49-year-old Rithy – Uncle Rithy to some of his film mentees – jokes that his only worry is being recognised by the public when he eats street-side noodles.
Before Saturday’s announcement, Panh was set to return to Cambodia for preparations for the Memory Film Heritage festival, of which he is a co-director, when he made the decision to turn back and attend the red-carpet award ceremony. Was he tipped off?
The director has been to seven Cannes film festivals, last time to accompany screenings of the 2011 documentary Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, his face-to-face encounter with the notorious Khmer Rouge torturer Kaing Guek Eav or ‘Duch’. The previous festivals are now but a blur, he admits.
Duch and the torture centre S21 have been the subject of three of Panh’s feature documentaries, as well as The Elimination, his memoir released in February of this year. The Missing Picture [L’Image Manquante ] tells what happened to Panh’s family during the Khmer Rouge and his own improbable survival in the regime’s forced labour programs, which he worked and starved through after the deaths of his parents, sisters and their small children.
Panh’s meetings with Duch, as he awaits the final judgment of the ECCC are woven throughout The Elimination, on which The Missing Picture is based, but those parts are not in the film, he says.
“The ‘missing picture’ could be my parents. How old are they now? Maybe I could take care of them? …In fact the missing picture is the thing that you are looking for, film after film. Each film you are looking for a missing picture and after you make one, you find another. You can find one picture but then another is missing again.”
Unusually, rather than re-enactment or straight documentary, the 95-minute autobiographical tale is played out by more than 100 small clay figurines, shot in static motion behind archival footage and life-like miniature sets – including one of Rithy Panh’s old family house in Phnom Penh. The film took two years to shoot, much of it in Phnom Penh, with a single sequence taking up to a week.
“I started first to build my home,” Panh explains, motioning to a cardboard scale-model house used on a different film. “I’ve never been back to my home since the 17th of April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge pushed us out… I just wanted to remember my home, so I started to rebuild it, with cardboard. I try to build it to visualise the space from my childhood and I asked my assistant to sculpt - in clay - a small toy.”
The toy figurine would represent him as a boy, through to his early teens, the age he was when the Khmer Rouge came to power.
“When I started [this film] two years ago, there were no figurines… I was in the villages in Battambang. I met a lot of old people who knew the story of the time and I tried to interview [them], to make something - but it looked the same,” he says. “You know, the cinema is not the truth. There is no truth… Cinema is your point of view. So if you make each film the same, you have to give a [new] cinematographical proposal. If you cannot give it you just repeat things.”
Panh’s figurine proposal was not easy for the film crew to grasp at first, and remained something of a mystery even to friends and colleagues at Bophana and the Cambodian Film Commission building, where he worked away in a small studio.
Searching fruitlessly for a photograph that could bear witness to inhuman acts perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, which one Khmer Rouge photographer had told him existed - Panh began to think about the nature of the quest itself.
“It’s not the image that I’m looking for, it’s just the way that you are looking for the missing picture,” he explains. “Maybe it’s a picture of the Khmer Rouge killing somebody – if you have the picture can this…explain the image of the truth? I’m not sure.
I’m not sure one image can explain the truth of what happened.”
Impressed by the small painted clay figures his assistant carved, Panh asked him to come up with more representing his family members, then water buffalo, then forests and landscapes.
“When I found out what he could do, I started to talk about the history [behind it] because he was born after the Khmer Rouge fell. We started to talk and created some sequence and so I had to explain to him what people do, how people think, what they said, like you direct an actor you know? So he listened to me and he [then] shew shew shew! [mimics carving the figurines]. Sometimes I’d sit next to him [as he carved]: ‘Much more happiness’ or ‘much more sad’, like you direct an actor or actress.”
Panh first found film in his twenties. After dabbling in painting and sculpture and experiencing periods of deep unhappiness and isolation in France, where he and his sister arrived after finding their way to a Thai refugee camp in 1979, the young Cambodian was accepted into film school.
The Institut des Hautes études Cinématographiques appealed initially, he jests in The Elimination, only because it gave him access to the school’s enormous film library. He returned to the Thai refugee border camps in the 1980s to film his first feature documentary Site 2.
At film school, did he think himself different from the other students – driven by a different purpose?
“Yes, you know everybody when they make a film [wants] to tell their story. Woody Allen makes a film about his story – New York - and Scorcese, Wim Wenders. This is my story [and] if you are Cambodian and you can’t talk about testimony, what can you talk about? … If you don’t do that the next generation will not understand what happened and they will be lost. You know, in the world, no country can build its future without a memory.”
Panh says recent comments attributed to National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha questioning the existence of S21 show not just the importance of survivors’ testimony but the need to keep analysing history.
“If you don’t … [a] guy who wants to be in power says, ‘Oh it was just the Vietnamese’. And we spent $100 million [to] judge the Khmer Rouge? … It’s not true to say a thing like that – it’s not good, good for the country. We can talk, we can have different opinions, but we cannot lie [about] history.”
He sees his own memoir, on which the new film was based, as a kind of “testimony”. The Elimination wasn’t written with a film in mind, he says, but rather it was a way of reflecting on his disturbing encounters with Duch, ‘a man who stalks his humanity’ and telling his own story.
“I had so many things in my heart, so it was useful for me first to put it down in the book, maybe to keep a trace of testimony or something like that. It’s not easy to meet a guy like Duch, he’s very human and at the same time very complex.”
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After finishing The Missing Picture, the director returned to his other home of Paris for some space between the production and editing process.
“[In filmmaking] you need a very good friend who comes later and watches the film with you …sometimes it’s clear for you but not clear for other people to understand it, so you need another team around you and we finished [the film] in France.”
Before going to France to live as a teenage refugee, Panh was familiar with the culture. His father, who worked in education, spoke French and some of his close family members had moved there before the events of April 17. He remembers going to see movies and French-language stage plays in Phnom Penh and eating the water melon seeds sold as snacks to the theatre-going crowds.
“There were a lot of [French] theatres, stage plays. In Phnom Penh I watched Moliere, Lakhaon Bassac…we ate [watermelon seeds] which are very red, and when we came out of the theatre, our lips were red. It was very interesting. We have to create these places for performing art… it’s very important for us,” he says.
Panh can’t say which capital – Phnom Penh or Paris – he ends up spending most of his time in, but his production company, Bophana Productions, is based here and work sees him travel much of the year.
There are no big bucks to be made in Panh’s line of auteur filmmaking [“If you lose money, nobody gives you it again”] so he teaches, at different film schools and courses around the world.
“I spend more and more time here [in Phnom Penh] but I have to earn my living by teaching – I am a volunteer here [at Bophana] so I need to earn my living back to train people. I teach everywhere – whoever pays me best!”
Panh believes the impact of film images on the squishy human memory is vital not just to bearing witness but to the future of Cambodia – tourism, identity, the economy. The image of Bruce Willis laying waste to Los Angeles can burn the city into the minds of many - just as a glimpse of Ta Prohm in Tomb Raider made Angkor known to thousands more people around the world.
“Now everything is images and sound. Today we have 3G, tomorrow we have 4G. We move very, very quickly. Maybe you don’t even earn one dollar per day, but you’ll have a smartphone with 4G. So, if you want to educate your people, if you want to boost commercial exchange [use technology].”
In the light-filled ground floor of Bophana, which he founded in 2005 with filmmaker Ieu Pannakar, giant papery shadow puppets are being installed for the upcoming nine-day Memory festival.
Bophana has come a long way in digitizing the audiovisual heritage of Cambodia, but its role preserving archives and investing in the next generation of documentary makers and auteurs is far from over.
“Memory: it’s also social cohesion. If you build it, you build your social cohesion…the festival is one of the ways for us to show that memory is very important. Film is still important because the digital footage we do not know how many years it can last; but film? One hundred years.”
What’s the next move for this man who has been so long involved in the story of the Khmer Rouge and the war criminal Duch?
“I don’t know…There are lot of stories to do now. ..It’s such a complicated story. I don’t want to be a specialist, you know, about this sort of film. I have a lot of work you know. My dream is to train a new generation, my dream is to found and run Bophana. I have a lot of work!”
Despite his jetlag and what must have been a hurriedly celebrated prize-taking, Panh has been speaking with interested intensity, for almost an hour.
His dedication to understanding his and Cambodia’s past, is perhaps best seen here at Bophana, where as he winds up the interview, a final passage from his memoir comes to mind.
‘I place more credence in pedagogy than in justice. I believe in working over time, and in the working of time. I want to understand, explain and remember – in precisely that order.’