Director Rithy Panh put Khmer Rouge survivors firmly back in the picture yesterday, taking home the 2013 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard award for his autobiographical documentary L’mage Manquante (The Missing Picture) to vigorous applause.
The first Cambodian to win the prestigious award, 49-year-old Panh thanked the festival and jury while accepting his award for the film, the first to use animation to explore the subject of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
“For a country that has emerged from its difficulties and years of war, it is important to say we are still alive,” Panh told Reuters after receiving his award at a red carpet ceremony in the French Riviera resort.
The film, based on the director’s 2013 memoir The Elimination, tells the story of Panh’s boyhood as it is horrifyingly interrupted by the events of April 17, 1975, and the evacuation of his Phnom Penh family to forced labour programs in which his parents and siblings died.
With intricate scale-model landscapes and carved figurines, the stop-motion animation is overlaid with archival footage and sound, from the deadening tones of Khmer Rouge propaganda to the upbeat strains of Phnom Penh’s “Golden Era” of popular music and film.
Panh, who has been in competition before at Cannes with his 1994 docu-drama Rice People, was presented with the prize by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who presided over a jury comprising actors Zhang Ziyi and Ludivine Sagnier, Rio Film Festival director Ilda Santiago and Spanish producer Enrique Gonzalez Macho. The film beat four others for the prize of Un Certain Regard – a category for films with especially original or thought-provoking themes, this year featuring filmmakers from Mexico, France and Palestine.
“For many years, I have been looking for the missing picture: a photograph taken between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge when they ruled over Cambodia,” Panh, who has made more than 15 films as a director and co-founded the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, said in the official synopsis of The Missing Picture on the Cannes website.
In the absence of a photograph showing the physical atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, he uses small sculpted figures, made by a Cambodian artist, to tell of the murder of his family and the horror of the period, from which he was able to escape to a Thai refugee camp in 1979. From there he migrated to Paris, where he eventually graduated from film school. The stop-motion animation was filmed by a small Cambodian crew in Phnom Penh and partially edited in France, by Panh’s Bophana productions.
As Bophana’s archive digitisation nears completion, the Memory International Film Heritage Festival will celebrate the preservation of film in a nine-day festival next week.
“If you don’t create your own images, as a small country you lose your culture and identity,” Panh told the Post in November.
Panh’s 2004 film S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine was assisted by the archives of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, but visual material from the centre was not for this film, said director Youk Chhang. With more than 60,000 images from the Khmer Rouge period, the absence of film or photographs of Khmer Rouge crimes presents an agonising mystery, Youk said.
“It’s impossible to identify such an image . . . [Panh] has created these clay images so that he can,” Youk said.
“Sometimes when you use a physical [representation] you’re pushing audience members who are survivors away because it seems like the film can preach.”
Panh’s Rice People was the first Cambodian film ever submitted to the Academy awards. Missing Picture could be another contender, said Mariam Arthur, chair of the Cambodia Oscar Selection Committee.
“As a documentary, his film is not eligible to be submitted for the Foreign Language film award, but he can submit it for the documentary category, which is a different process – I think he should.”
To be submitted for Best Documentary, the film needs a theatrical release in Cambodia and to find an official distributor. Yesterday it was announced that distributors New Wave and Astair have bought rights to distribute the Missing Picture in the UK and Japan – a US deal is said to be in the offing, industry magazine Variety reported.
Legend Cinema distributor Michael Chai said the theatre would be happy to screen the film in Phnom Penh. additional reporting from reuters.