Wearing a loose, linen shirt and chomping a fat cigar, Rithy Panh leans back in his chair and discusses filmmakers ranging from Akira Kurasawa to John Cassavetes. Panh has directed nearly a dozen films, including S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which was among the official selection at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. After losing almost his entire family in Khmer Rouge labor camps, he escaped to Thailand in 1979. He eventually ended up in Paris, studying at France's national cinema school. After years of trying to forget his past, including refusing to speak Khmer, Panh returned to Cambodia in 1990 and began his series of films. "When I was young I thought I could throw away the past, but all my friends and culture are in Cambodia," said Panh. "Why am I alive when my brothers are dead? Maybe their dying is pushing me to do something greater." Charles McDermid spoke to him about truth, memory and his lasting friendship with painter Vann Nath.
What do you think of the film The Killing Fields?
I don't like it. How anyone can make a fiction film about genocide, I don't know. My point of view and those inside Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime is that we could never make S-21 as a feature film.
Describe your relationship with the painter Vann Nath. [Note: At press time, Vann Nath had returned from spinal surgery in Bangkok, but was still unable to stand for more than 30 minutes]
We are great friends. It's an honor for me to have a friend like Vann Nath. I met him in 1991 when I started to make my first film here, Cambodia: Between War and Peace. I knew what they did at Toul Sleng: it was so bad and the evil was so extreme. With Vann Nath you have a person who came through something very dark. He's symbolic of humanity and resistance.
In S-21 you film a famous meeting between Vann Nath, a Toul Sleng survivor, and Hoy, one of the top officials at the infamous prison. How did they actually meet?
I had come back again to see him when I was filming Bophana (1996) and I was working with Hoy, too. I didn't want them to meet. I felt that I had no right to put them together. I would interview with Nath and then ask him to stay home or come back later. But once we had Hoy at S-21 and Nath came back to wash his brushes. Hoy was in the courtyard and Nath was there smoking. A guy at the museum had told him that Hoy was there to see me. Nath said nothing, just went on smoking. Then, he went up to Hoy and put his arm around him. He asked, "Do you remember me?" Hoy said "No" and Nath said "I remember you." He was very, very calm.
Then what happened?
It was really great that day. A group of young people found out who Hoy was and wanted to beat him. Vann Nath stopped them. He said, "I don't want you to beat him. You don't have the right. I want him to tell the truth." Nath has a sense of history. S-21 was so incredibly evil, without telling the truth, how could people even believe it in 50 years?
Why did you make S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine?
It's been necessary for me to face my history and my personal story. I lost my parents and uncle at S-21. Making films is how I've learned to live with my pain. I don't want to transmit it to my child. I want it to end with me. If I didn't make films, I don't know how I would talk about S-21. How?
What subjects will you choose for your next films?
I want one day to make a film not about the Khmer Rouge. When I make a film like that I will be saying "You cannot destroy me." I think many Cambodians are ashamed of what happened. The Khmer Rouge hurt us very much, but it was only for four years. I don't want to reduce our history to the KR. I'm searching for something young people can be proud of.
What's your opinion of the Khmer Rouge Trials?
It's a way to put an end to impunity, and its' a good occasion to tell people what happened. But how can you get justice out of a case of genocide? I don't know, but I know this trial can help us write on an empty page before it is turned.