Hearing Rithy Panh talk about his nerves before the screening of his latest film at the Cannes Film Festival in France, it’s hard to believe how frequently his work has been shown on the Croisette. Not once, not twice, but actually seven times since Rice People was invited to unspool at the annual event in 1994.
“I really don’t feel comfortable at the screenings here, I have to walk away and go somewhere else when the film started,” he said at a terrace at the festival’s main venue the day after Exile received its world premiere on Friday night. “Here, sometimes it can be horrible; half of the people would go away [before films end].”
But the Paris-educated filmmaker’s reputation in Cannes – and France – has been on the up in the past two decades, a trajectory culminating in The Missing Picture winning the top award at the Un Certain Regard section in 2013.
His latest work is relevant to French audiences in more ways than one. A follow-up to last year’s France Is Our Mother Country, a film probing France’s colonial legacy in Cambodia and beyond, Exile actually quotes French Revolution leaders Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de St-Just, as well as contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou.
Meanwhile, cuttings from left-leaning French newspapers also appear on screen, all of them glowing reports from April 17, 1975, marking the Khmer Rouge’s “liberation” of Cambodia. All these elements contribute to a film that examines how noble, progressive revolutionary ideals could and did go astray when in dogmatic hands of those such as those of Pol Pot and his guerrillas 41 years ago.
Exile also quotes extensively from foreign historical figures, such as Pol Pot’s ideological forefather Mao Zedong, and the Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz.
The filmmaker said Exile is designed to inspire audiences to think about the ramifications of regimes advocating a repressive and extreme ideological purity, from the Khmer Rouge to the Islamic State.
“I have told my history, what happened in Cambodia,” he said. “This film looks at the same [kind of] authoritarianism, a subject in the centre of the picture which might be relevant for everybody apart from me.”
Meanwhile, the other Cambodian film making its debut at Cannes is also very relevant to France. Diamond Island, Davy Chou’s first feature that also showed on Friday, boasts a largely French technical crew.
The film was co-financed by a number of French companies and organisations – and Chou, the grandson of 1960s and ’70s Cambodian film producer Van Chann, was actually born and raised in France.
Chou said he was pleased about this cross-border cultural collaboration. “It’s a question to ask [the French crew members] but I know that for them it was a life-changing experience,” said Chou in a seaside cafe the day after Diamond Island bowed at Cannes’s Critics’ Week sidebar. “Once the shooting has ended and they came back to France, they were talking about going back to Cambodia, trying to do something or work there.”
While Cambodia exercised its charm on those visiting French technicians, the on-screen representations of the country intrigued audiences at Cannes too. Chou said that while the French press asked him about Diamond Island's aesthetics, they also asked him about the relationship between young Cambodians and this “strange” lavish residential suburb spouting out of Phnom Penh.
“Of course Diamond Island is not Cambodia, but it is part of Cambodia and what it’s becoming or wants to become,” said Chou. “I made the film out of my fascination of that place . . . which, for me, is the symbol of modernisation in Cambodia.”
Diamond Island revolves around a village-raised teenager’s rite of passage as he moves to Phnom Penh and immerses himself in the city’s bright lights and high life. This is Chou’s second appearance at Cannes, following the screening of his short film Cambodia 2099 in the Directors’ Fortnight, a program held in parallel to the main festival.
Chou said the exposure he received this time round was much more than he did with his short two years ago. But he said he is most proud this time round of being able to bring some of his non-professional cast to Cannes.
“As soon as we knew about [the film being invited to] Cannes, in the middle of April, we were thinking we should bring the actors,” he said.
“And it’s like an impossible mission, because two of them had never been outside Cambodia so they didn’t even have a passport.”
Eventually, Chou and his team sorted out the issue for Sobon Nuon and Madeza Chhem, who play the film’s protagonist and his girlfriend respectively.
The documents came out in time for the pair to travel with Cheanick Nov, who plays the lead character’s brother, and artistic director Kanitha Tith to Cannes.
Once there, they appeared not just at the screening of their film – where they charmed the audience by greeting them from the stage in basic French – but also a walk down the red carpet at the Grand Theatre Lumiere to attend the gala premiere of Bruno Dumont’s main competition title Slack Bay on Friday night.
“Of course they are shy – and it’s so frightening to be here with people shouting everywhere,” said Chou.
“They totally adapted themselves, especially when they did the red carpet thing … They did it like a real professional, they’re so cool. And we did a few photo shoots for French magazines, and they were so professional too,” he added.
“We lived through an amazing experience shooting the film,” Chou said of his relationship with young men and women he recruited from around Phnom Penh during a four-month casting period. “So to be able to share the moment of the screening of the film with them, it’s priceless.”