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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Director ignores the highlife

Director ignores the highlife

W HILE King Sihanouk works on another film at Angkor, in Phnom Penh students at

the National Cinema Center are learning skills from an award-wining young

director. Rithy Panh, 31, (right) has been hailed internationally as an

extraordinary talent since his film, "The People of the Ricefields", was

nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May


Since then, Rithy has eschewed the trappings of success. Instead,

while formulating his next film. He is teaching at the school's Atelier


On Feb 5, the French Cultural Center screened documentaries made

by his 11 pupils. Four have been selected by the Ministry of Culture to be shown

on International Women's Day on Mar 7.

He has already found work for his

students making films for NGOs. In April, he starts a four week program teaching

five students screenwriting. For funding, he raised $100,000 from France's

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a private organization, Ecran


"Teaching is important to me," said Rithy. "I enjoy training young

film-makers. The cinema is a resource for fiction, for imagination. Cinema is

universal, but it is also individual. It is a form of language as well as a


Rithy's eloquent film shows the lives of a peasant family

tending their rice fields. With simplicity and subtlety, the story illustrates

the harshness of their existence, while lingering on the beauty of the

countryside and the dignity of the people. Only one fleeting scene alludes to

the past and the Khmer Rouge.

"The role of the artist," he claims, "is to

awaken peoples' consciousness, show them a sensitivity, a tradition, a history,

a culture. When there are difficulties, the force of country is in its soul. Its

soul is its culture. The artist can speak to poor people and make them rich, by

giving them back their dignity. When the world is ugly, then you show the

beauty, the sincerity."

Cinema became the artistic medium for Rithy

following a ten year silence after the Pol Pot regime.

Born in 1964, he

suffered the horrors of a Khmer Rouge reeducation camp. He escaped across

minefields to the Thai border in 1979, but 13 members of his family, including

his parents and three of his eight brothers and sisters died. From there, he

fled to France, where he cut himself off from his culture.

"I wanted to

forget what had happened," he said. "I wanted to be alone. It was a moment of my

life when I needed distance. I was trying to understand. For ten years I had no

contact with anything Cambodian, I was writhing poetry, playing music, painting,

solitary activities. I read a lot. Renee Char, Eluard, Celine, Camus, Thomas

Mann. I went to the cinema."

Someone lent him a Super 8 movie camera and

he made a little film. "It was amusing," he said. "I loved the form, the image.

I love what the image brings to people."

He won a scholarship in 1986 to

the Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinematographique in Paris.

"We had a

card to get in free to all the cinemas," he recalled. "So I went every day to

the cinematheque. My favorite directors were the Iranian Kiarostami, the

Japanese Ozu and Immamura, Rossellini, Lino Brocka, Ken Loach. They influenced

me because their films spoke of liberty."

He directed four documentaries; two on Cambodia, one on African film maker

Souleyman Cisse, and one on Site 2. "The essence is in the imagery. I don't need

to speak. In my documentaries, it's others who speak. I concentrate on gestures,

on silences."

He returned to Cambodia in 1990, and found his brothers and

sisters. He came back again in 1991 with French producer Jacques Bidou, who

helped raise $1.4 million.

He began filming in 1992, helped by the

Cambodian and French Ministries of Culture, and several television companies. He

used amateur actors. In 1993 he spent eight months editing the


"He is meticulous," said French Culture Center directory Yves

Blandin. "When he works, nothing else exists."

The next film Rithy wants

to make is about young people, how they live and what their future


He does not need much money to work, he claims. "Money always

creates problems. If I had lots of money to make a film here it would be

disproportionate to what I want to show."

In a year which marks the

centenary of the history of film - the first was made in 1895 by Melies - Rithy

is using cinema to resurrect his country, hitherto perceived as a


"We have to fabricate our image, which then speaks to


He is also teaching an art form that can be both the hobby of a

King and a way of reconstructing a fragile culture.



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