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,
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.