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Rithy Panh at the Bophana Center on Tuesday. Eliah Lillis

Q&A: Rithy Panh on Exile and dignity

Over a cuban cigar last week at his Bophana Center office, acclaimed director-producer Rithy Panh sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about his recent film Exile (2016) – an autobiographical but cerebral reflection on surviving the Khmer Rouge – which will screen at this year’s Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF)

What were your cinematographic and storytelling objectives with Exile?

The story is about resistance when you live through a difficult time. The film is quite strange, it’s more of a cinematographic essay reflecting on how, when faced with acts of barbarism, one might resist. It’s a return to poetry in the classical Greek sense of creation. So I tried to show how I resisted during that time, which was using all that was most dear, intimate and deeply important to me.

When one is faced with destruction, one must secretly protect and cultivate one’s imagination and one’s capacity to create. For example, Stalin put poets in gulags and persecuted intellectuals, but despite that, people learned poems by heart and published them after Stalin died.

That’s a form of resistance. When I lived under the Khmer Rouge, I would do the same for poems and songs - even just imitating the sounds. I would put my own words to tunes by The Beatles or the Bee Gees, just to make it my own. It’s to say that you can kill me, but you can’t kill my essence, my spirit. It’s part of protecting one’s dignity, even as a child.

So now, 45 years later, I am confronting this exile, not just my physical exile but also the internal exile - the building of an emotional island.

So this film is in part autobiographical but also a bit of documentary commentary on philosophy?

Yes. Philosophers like [Theodor W] Adorno who said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” ... For me, after Auschwitz we need poetry more than ever; we need more than ever to think. It’s a way of saying that to resist you need to have this poetic imagination. We need to protect one’s culture, no matter how small or distant that culture is, because it is us.

In Exile, one is face to face with oneself as well as the gigantic totalitarian machine that is the Khmer Rouge. One must find that which makes them human, gives them dignity, and what makes them capable of creativity, learning languages and seeing the world in colour.

Even though the film is in French, and dubbed in English, what do you hope a Cambodian audience will draw from it?

I think this is not an easily accessible film for any public. What I found curious from having screened this film around the world is that, for instance, [at a film festival] in Argentina, the adopted son of the festival director, who was maybe 10 years old, understood everything. Just from seeing the images the endless battle to survive, of good and evil, to just get out, the young kid understood it without a [Cambodian] cultural context.

So I don’t know, I think if people let themselves go and can understand some English and French, they will get it, and anyway, you don’t need to fully understand the movie.

But would a Cambodian spectator recognise his identity on screen?

I think, yes. But I think liberty and dignity have no nationality.

This interview was translated from French and edited for length and clarity.

Exile will be shown at Chaktomuk Theater (March 5 at 6:30pm) and the French Institute (March 8 at 8pm).

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