Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh's search for catharsis

By Poppy McPherson
Phnom Penh

image captionMr Panh lived a comfortable life before he lost his family under the Maoist regime when he was 13

Rithy Panh, the 50-something filmmaker and survivor of the Cambodian killing fields, likes to watch war films. The sounds of bombs exploding and guns firing offer a mindless release from his day job: making documentaries that try to extract meaning from the Khmer Rouge era, which left him an orphan.

"I need noise, I need planes, bombs, I cannot understand the story but the noise makes me wake up," he said in his Phnom Penh office on the first floor of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre, the film preservation institution he runs.

His latest attempt at examining the Khmer Rouge era may be his most celebrated yet. The Missing Picture, a documentary that recounts his own experiences in Pol Pot's Cambodia using static clay figurines, has been nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language film category. It is the first time that a Cambodian film has made it this far.

The announcement comes at a difficult time in the country's history. Late 2013 was marked by demonstrations over a disputed election and conditions in the garment industry. By the time the news came on 16 January that Cambodia was going to the Oscars, at least six people had been killed in the unrest and dozens had been sent to jail. Opposition lawmakers continue to boycott the National Assembly.

After a terrible few months, "sometimes a project like that, coming at this stage, it's good for everybody", Mr Panh said. "If we have something [win], it's very, very great for Cambodia, but the fact that we are there is already great."

'Global level'

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe Missing Picture is the first Cambodian film nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language film category

His film, which won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is up against works from Italy, the Palestinian territories, Denmark and Belgium.

Cedric Eloy, the chief executive officer of the Cambodian Film Commission, said the nomination was a sign that the country was ready to "play on a global level".

While The Missing Picture is receiving the most sought-after audience imaginable, the rest of Cambodia's film industry is also thriving.

Throughout 2013, film festivals handed out awards to several locally-produced projects, including Red Wedding, a stark account produced by Mr Panh of forced marriage under the communist regime, and A River Changes Course, a documentary that reveals the human cost of Cambodia's rapid development.

Closer to home, Sok Visal's heist-comedy Gems on the Run set the standard for local productions, and country's first-ever zombie film was released.

In December, an agreement was signed with the French government making co-productions easier, which paved the way for Régis Wargnier (director of the 1992 French film Indochine) to start filming an adaptation of the Khmer Rouge memoir, The Gate.

"For the first time, features that are produced entirely or partly with Cambodia will reach the international market," Mr Eloy said, adding that local technical expertise had grown.

"In 2009 when we started, there were about 40 experienced film crew members, and there are over 160 now. It's still not enough but it's a good progression."

Mr Panh was born in Phnom Penh to a middle-class family. His father was an under-secretary to various ministers. He lived a comfortable life, snacking on tamarinds from the gardens of the National Museum, where his sister worked as deputy director.

But when he was 13, the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime swept to power, emptied the cities and forced the population to labour in the countryside. Nearly two million died or were executed.

Mr Panh survived, but his parents and siblings did not. After the regime fell in 1979, he fled to France, a refuge he calls his "second mother". It was there that he developed a passion for filmmaking.

image captionThe Missing Picture utilises archival video footage and shots of clay figures

Too rock 'n' roll

In the years that followed, he directed and produced dozens of films, many set in Cambodia. In S-21: The Khmer Killing Machine, named after Tuol Sleng, the school-turned-prison where thousands of people lost their lives, he persuaded former guards to return to the site and re-enact their crimes.

The Missing Picture is Mr Panh's attempt to finally tackle his own story through film.

It moves between archival video footage and shots of clay figures, who seem all the more grave by their frozen immobility.

He came up with the idea for the figures after accidentally discovering one of the men on his set design team could sculpt brilliantly with clay.

Mr Panh's brother, a musician, disappeared after the evacuation of Phnom Penh. In the film, a little clay figure with spiky hair floats onto the screen, clutching an electric guitar as the narrator explains he was too rock 'n' roll for the Khmer Rouge.

Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a non-governmental organisation which has collected the country's most extensive archive of Khmer Rouge material, said of the clay: "It's something that Cambodia looks at as a toy, but [Mr Panh] gives it a soul."

Mr Chhang, who helped in the production of S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, added: "We want to move forward but [the film] reminds us we have to remember the past. Genocide is part of us."

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe title of Mr Panh's film alludes to the enormous loss suffered by Cambodia

As for the young filmmakers of the present, they hope the success of The Missing Picture will raise the profile of Cambodian cinema.

Kavich Neang, a 26-year-old documentary director who credits "Uncle Panh" as his mentor, said: "For me, for my generation, [the nomination] is something that gives us hope for the future."

Filmmakers in Cambodia still face obstacles. Politically sensitive topics are rarely covered. When Mr Neang told his parents he was making documentaries, they asked: "You're not afraid to die?"

Mr Panh, who has mentored several up-and-coming directors, said he was hopeful that the country would see another great era of arts, like the '60s, when Khmer-language rock 'n' roll ruled the airwaves and some of Phnom Penh's finest buildings were constructed.

"I would like this period to come again, when architecture can meet dance, can meet cinema, can meet books," he said.

The title of his new documentary alludes to the enormous loss that Cambodia has suffered, a loss for which no award or cinematic triumph can compensate. As with his previous work, Mr Panh said that making The Missing Picture has not been cathartic.

"Before, I had a little hope that, film after film, I would feel better. But film after film, I sleep less and less, and I think I will die with this feeling of something bad inside me - guilty, or something."

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