Director Rithy Panh is taking a piece of Cambodia to the Oscars in his pocket.
Today, as he walks down the red carpet in Los Angeles, tucked into his suit will be the clay figurine carved from Cambodian soil that serves as the main character in his Academy Award nominated film, The Missing Picture.
On Saturday night, at an event to celebrate the five films competing in the foreign language category, Panh reportedly pulled the figurine, a miniature depiction of himself, from his pocket.
“After the film [was finished], he’s been travelling with me a little bit,” the filmmaker told The Washington Post.
Panh’s doppelgänger has come a long way from its birthplace, the hand of a sculptor from Prey Veng province who carved figurines and the set used in the film, which tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Yesterday, sitting on a bench at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, a film preservation institute founded by Panh, Mang Sarith quietly explained how his handiwork ended up on the other side of the world.
Sarith, 33, who also goes by the name Toh, spent his childhood in Site 2, the largest refugee camp on the Thailand-Cambodia border. He and his friends made their own fun.
Smiling, he recalled how they moulded tiny cars from the wet earth.
“When I was young, there were no kids toys to play with. Me and my friends went to the lake and took the clay from the ground,” he said.
Sarith is not a rich man. Like many Cambodians, his life has been shaped by the tumultuous events that have defined the country’s recent history.
His father was a soldier, and the family moved around depending on where he worked. In 1990, they finally settled in Phnom Penh and Sarith began to attend school. However, after grade 10, he dropped out of education and followed his father into the armed forces, where he worked for three years.
In the years that followed, he worked various jobs. He tried his hand at running a coffee shop. A short stint helping a friend’s family with their work chipping rocks from the mountainside taught him the basics of sculpting, and he also learned to do the same with wood, and eventually became friendly with the set director on Panh’s films.
After the pair met in Siem Reap, Panh enlisted Sarith to work as set assistant, and became a sort of mentor and friend. They worked on several productions together, but it wasn’t until The Missing Picture that Sarith’s unusual talent for sculpting was discovered.
In an interview at his first-floor office in the Bophana Centre earlier this year, Panh described the moment he decided that his story would be best told through figurines created by Sarith, whom he knows as Toh.
“In the beginning I just told Toh to create me a small boy. ‘In wood? [he said].’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘in clay like you used to do as a child’.” Over the course of the next day, Sarith produced and painted two intricate sculptures. Panh was shocked. “I said, ‘You are crazy, where did you learn to sculpt like that?”
The pair collaborated, creating hundreds of figurines and sets, with Sarith often working late into the night.
“He asked me a lot of questions, and after that he started to sculpt, 10 to 12 hours a day,” said Panh. “I have no photos to show him what happened. He just listened a lot and chet, chet, chet,” Panh added, mimicking the hacking sound of a scalpel against clay.
Sarith’s only knowledge of the Khmer Rouge came from listening to old stories told by his father, especially about his uncle and grandfather, who both died. For The Missing Picture, he researched and consulted survivors so he could create a precise reconstruction of their suffering and pain.
“At that time many people were killed by the organisation, Angkar. But I could not imagine how they killed the people.”
He wanted to do justice to the millions of individual stories from the era, he said.
“I was nervous to make it because I wanted to show the next generation that picture,” he added, as his two young daughters played beside him, on their mother’s lap.
The scene from the film of which he is proudest is a hospital where, instead of medicine, patients were treated with natural remedies found in the forest. Many died there, including members of Panh’s family. The young Panh, who was 13 when the Khmer Rouge came to power, was forced to bury the bodies.
“I felt so much pity that Mr Rithy Panh’s grandmother and sister died in that hospital,” he said. “I wasn’t there, but I just felt that I was Mr Rithy Panh.”
On the surface, Sarith couldn’t be much further from Panh that he is today. None of the sculptor’s family in Prey Veng has seen the film. He doesn’t plan to watch the awards ceremony, though he would like to.
“I don’t know where or how to watch it,” he said.
Whether The Missing Picture takes home the prize or not, Sarith’s life is unlikely to change. But he is proud of the contribution he has made to Cambodia’s history.
As for the figurines he created, including the one in Panh’s pocket, they will eventually disintegrate or be destroyed, the director told the Washington Post on Saturday.
“Maybe he will turn back to clay, water or dust, and there will be no trace – just one soul living with us forever.”