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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Historic film archive languishing in France

Historic film archive languishing in France

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historic.jpg

Prince Souphanavong from Laos and Khieu Samphan (far right) as the cameraman looks on (dated approximately early 1976).

F

ive years ago Cambodia's film archive sat in rusty canisters, rotting in a dust-filled

storeroom. Reels of documentary footage shot from the Sihanouk era in 1965 until

the time of the Vietnamese-installed State of Cambodia government in 1985 were almost

totally ruined.

It is the reels from the Khmer Rouge regime that are of particular interest to genocide

researcher Craig Etcheson. At the time he was working as program director at the

International Monitor Institute (IMI).

"One of the things [IMI] specializes in is taking film, video and audio tapes

pertaining to war crimes-type situations, and indexing them," says Etcheson.

"This involves breaking them down by images and keywords, and creating a multimedia

computer database that is useful to prosecutors."

Etcheson says the archive contained more than 90 reels filmed by the KR that could

help in the event of a trial. For that reason IMI decided to work with the Documentation

Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a genocide research organization. But when Etcheson

went to pick up the films, they were gone.

"In May 1998, I went to Phnom Penh to take possession of the KR film stash on

behalf of DC-Cam, with the aim of making just such a multimedia database, only to

discover that the films had been spirited away a few days earlier," says Etcheson.

It transpired that then-Minister of Culture, Nuth Narang, had cut a deal with a French

film production company called System TV. More than 160 reels had been shipped to

the company's offices in Boulogne, just outside Paris.

At the time Narang was accused of selling the cultural archive. But in early 1999

Narang told the Khmer press that the president of System TV, Daniel Renouf, had not

bought the films. Instead he had been contracted to restore them.

Narang says he was shocked at the state of the celluloid and estimates that half

had already been stolen or destroyed. His actions, he told the Post earlier this

year, saved the remainder from destruction.

"The press said I sold the films but it's not true," says Narang, now a

member of parliament who runs his own school, the Resource and Research Centre on

Khmer Civilization. "What I did was purely cultural.

"I transferred all the films that weren't protected to Daniel Renouf. It was

with the goal of conservation of documents," he says. "I'm certain that

if the films stayed here they would have disappeared because anyone could've gotten

them."

System TV's Renouf also bristles at the suggestion he bought the films.

"When I took these films, they were in a humid room," he says. "All

the rumors about giving money to Nuth Narang aren't true. Nuth Narang tried to do

something to help Cambodia."

About the only certainty in the entire episode is that the footage remains abroad.

Rumors continue that KR-era footage has appeared uncredited in recent documentary

films.

The director of DC-Cam, Youk Chhang, has filed complaints with the head of the Council

of Ministers' anti-corruption unit, Sin Visoth, who won't investigate the issue.

"He doesn't have enough evidence so substantiate the matter," says Visoth.

"I will look into this matter if the Ministry of Culture makes a request to

the Council of Ministers. If there's no complaint from the victim then the police

can't do anything."

And there is still some debate as to exactly where in France the films are located.

Edwige Laforêt, a French film researcher, insists the films have been hidden

in the Pathé Library, a huge archive in Paris.

Laforêt says that each time she tries to glean more information, "there

is a silent wall [that] makes me mad. It seems true that the deal between System

TV and Pathé was first to restore them, then to come a distribution agreement

which would have been a big robbery."

She says nothing has been done about the rumors which have been circulating for some

time and that "part of the Cambodian patrimony is slowly sinking".

The only information the Post could get from Pathé was from its website, which

states that it has 16 Cambodia-related films from 1965 to 1985, none shot during

the Pol Pot regime.

The 16 also do not appear to match the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA)

official list of films in the archive. An email request to Pathé received

no response by press time.

Renouf says he has kept the archive in professional storage since Narang asked him

to take it and find money for restoration work in France. If MoCFA wants the films

back, he adds, it need only ask. Meanwhile around $65,000 is needed to restore the

footage: 34,900 meters of 35 mm film and 27,940 meters of 16 mm film.

Yet rumors of the archive's sale persist, fueled by the fact the films have languished

unrestored since they left in 1998. DC-Cam's Chhang feels particularly passionate

about the issue. He feels something unethical has happened, and has repeatedly asked

Phnom Penh to press for the return of the films. He says he would gladly raise funds

for their transport.

"It has been five years now. The agreement was that [Renouf would] restore the

films and return them to Cambodia," says Chhang. "These films should be

accessed by all. It's such a crucial part of history that should be seen."

Although he has not seen the archive himself, Chhang gave the Post a list of 94 films

from the Pol Pot period. He derived the list from MoCFA's records of 168 films. Titles

range from the intriguing Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary receive delegations to

Cambodia to the banal Rainy season.

Genocide researcher Craig Etcheson speculates that the footage might contain material

that some in government would not want the public to see. Chhang concurs, saying

the images have the potential to be very powerful.

"Any piece of Khmer Rouge material can serve as a piece of evidence, can shed

light on what happened," says Chhang. "This is not just a film. It's the

most important piece of the history of Cambodia."

Cambodia's premier film maker, Rithy Panh, also feels strongly about the issue. He

recalls asking System TV if he could watch some of the footage but was told he needed

permission from MoCFA.

"I don't know what their agreement was, but we have to get them back,"

he says. "They should be in Cambodia, not in Paris. We need them to reconstitute

our memory."

It isn't just Rithy Panh who was blocked from seeing what Renouf claims he still

holds. When in Paris earlier this year, the Post asked Renouf for a viewing of the

films.

He replied that the 1998 contract he signed with the government precludes him from

showing the films to anyone who lacks permission. The former minister Narang agrees,

saying that anyone who wants to see the films must get permission from the "highest

levels" of the government.

Numerous producers have come to System TV and offered to buy or pay to see the films.

Renouf says the US-based news show 60 Minutes even offered money to view the footage,

but he turned them down as he does not hold the rights to show them.

And while Renouf has seen some of the films himself, he does not find them significant.

"I don't know the people," he says. "I don't think it's very interesting."

When pressed about their content, Renouf says one contains Hun Sen when he was Foreign

Minister, there's another of Pol Pot at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium - "but

everybody knows this film" - and also there's a "very old" reel of

King Sihanouk at a KR ceremony.

He insists that not a single frame of any of the films under the responsibility of

System TV has been used, sold or shown to anybody. If DC-Cam's Chhang wants to view

the films, says Renouf, he should consult the director of MoCFA's cinema department.

"It's not a big story. Mr Youk Chhang is not a fair man," he says.

Chhang asserts the films are unique, and accuses Renouf of adopting a colonialist

attitude on the matter. He believes the celluloid can be restored in Cambodia and

says nobody should be permitted to take the Kingdom's historical artifacts.

"Where do you go when you want to learn about Angkor Wat? You go to Paris,"

says Chhang. "These mistakes should not be made again."

Narang says it's not Chhang's role to bring the films back to Cambodia, and feels

the restoration process cannot be done here. A proper laboratory would have to be

set up, he says, and funds are needed for other pressing cultural projects such as

the caved-in roof at the National Library.

Som Sokun, director of MoCFA's cinema department, agrees with Narang.

"It's better to restore them before bringing them back to Cambodia because we

don't have the means to restore them ourselves," he says.

Rithy Panh says one solution to the problem would be to establish a national film

agency similar to France's Cinémathèque. He adds that the footage of

his film Bophana was someone's personal property, originally found on the street

in Phnom Penh. It was digitally restored in Paris, and Panh says the owners will

likely donate it to a Cambodian Cinémathèque if one were established.

But that still leaves unanswered the question of who will pay for the restoration.

Sokun hopes the French government will fund it, but says any such request is beyond

his responsibility. Instead talks with Paris must go through the current Minister

of Culture, Princess Buppha Devi, and others higher up in government.

Sokun says he is often asked whether he thinks there is anything suspicious about

the long years the archive has been out of the country.

"There have been many journalists who have asked me that," he says. "They

say System TV has not followed the contract signed with the minister. But I don't

have any proof."

As for Renouf, he blames "the Phnom Penh information system" for stories

swirling around the alleged misappropriation of the films. He says he came to the

capital last August and tried to meet with Chhang so they could go to the culture

ministry and resolve the matter, but claims the DC-Cam director refused to see him.

For his part, Chhang says his friends pressured Renouf into contacting him last year,

but the System TV president didn't follow up on the appointment.

"He called me for lunch," he says. "But he never called me back."

As for stories of uncredited film clips turning up in documentaries, Etcheson admits

it's possible there are other sources of film and perhaps even copies of films of

the cache now held by System TV.

"Since the disintegration of the Khmer Rouge, all kinds of stuff has come up

for sale in various parts of the jungles. One never knows," says Etcheson. "The

real question, though, and the real mystery of this whole matter, it seems to me,

is quite elementary: Why is this property of the Cambodian government, and patrimony

of the Cambodian people, still in France? Why has it proven so difficult for this

material to be returned to where it belongs?"

Renouf says the answer is money, and as soon as he is able to get official funds

and restore the films he will return them to the culture ministry. "I continue

to try to find official funds to finance this cost," he says. "If you have

any ideas ... let me know."

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