Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Q&A: Rithy Panh on Exile and dignity

Q&A: Rithy Panh on Exile and dignity

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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).

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post

  • Residence cards set for over 80,000 immigrants

    The Ministry of Interior plans to grant residence cards to more than 80,000 immigrants to better keep track of them. The ministry announced the plan on July 10, following the results of an immigration census. “An inter-ministerial committee and many operational working groups have been set up

  • Kingdom, US vow stronger ties

    At an academic forum on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of Cambodia-US diplomatic ties, Cambodian researchers and officials expressed hope of encouraging US investments and for that country to deepen and improve its bilateral relations. Held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, it reviewed the past 70

  • Fifteen Cambodians from Saudi get Covid-19

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday confirmed 15 more imported cases of Covid. The 15 men ‒ all Cambodian aged 21 to 33 ‒ arrived from Saudi Arabia on Friday via a connecting flight in Malaysia. They were travelling with 79 other passengers, three of them women. The ministry said 80 of the

  • Ministry requests school opening

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Thursday said it would request a decision from Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow a small number of schools to reopen next month. Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said if the request is granted, higher-standard schools will reopen

  • Kingdom eyes India FTA, China deal set for August

    Cambodia is studying the possibility of establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with India to open a new market with the second-largest regional economy. This comes as an FTA with China is scheduled to be signed next month while similar negotiations with South Korea

  • Judge lands in court after crashing into alleged thief

    Sen Sok district police on Thursday sent a Koh Kong Provincial Court judge to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on manslaughter charges after he crashed his car into a woman riding a motorbike on Wednesday, killing her. District police chief Hour Meng Vang told The

  • Vietnamese workers in Koh Kong questioned

    The General Department of Immigration (GDI) is questioning 49 Vietnamese nationals who were working illegally in Koh Kong province to build a case and send them back to Vietnam, its Department of Investigation and Procedure director Kem Sarin said on Thursday. GDI forces and provincial authorities