I’ve never conceived of a film as a response or as a demonstration.
I think of it as a questioning.
Some filmmakers have dedicated their lives to rehabilitating a personal and collective memory that history hasn’t always managed to put in its rightful place, a half-written history that hasn’t delved into its wounds or analysed the (non-) reasons that allowed tragedy and dehumanisation to become institutionalised norms.
Rithy Panh is one of those filmmakers, and Cambodia is the country where his level and discerning gaze has already become an integral part of the very history he has set out to re-establish. A direct victim of the atrocities perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge in the country from 1975-1979, Panh’s work in films like The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000) and Paper Cannot Wrap up Embers (2007), doesn’t shy away from portraying the conditions of extreme poverty and the economic and social inequality with which globalisation rewards underdeveloped countries.
It is in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), however, that Rithy Panh fully immerses us in the minds and settings of these torturers, who still refuse to admit their guilt: they were merely obeying orders from the organisation, the ‘Angkar’. Panh re-enacts their torture processes and executions and brings them face-to-face with their victims, whom they viewed as beasts that had to be annihilated. Panh aims to be accurate, to painstakingly recreate processes of terror in order to leave a reliable record for future history and for present-day judgement: “I film their silences, their faces, their gestures. That’s my method. I don’t fabricate the event. I create situations in which former Khmer Rouge can think about what they did. And in which survivors can tell what they suffered”. The film is dedicated to Memory.
In 2011 he published the essay The Elimination, which he co-authored with writer Christophe
Bataille. From that point onwards Bataille became a regular collaborator on Panh’s film scripts. It is a harrowing text wherein he narrates his experience of survival in the era of Democratic Kampuchea, recounting in parallel an interview held with the most senior official in the S-21extermination camp. This interview in turn gave rise to the film Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011): “I’d never intended to make a film about Duch, but I didn’t like his absence from S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is almost entirely an indictment of the man: everybody accuses him. It was as though my investigation was missing an essential element: Duch’s words”.
The same book led to his next film, The Missing Picture (2013), where for the first time Panh
touches on his personal experiences during those childhood years: the death of much of his family from starvation, forced labour camps and fleeing to Thailand once Vietnamese troops had entered the country. In the face of the impossibility of finding the missing pictures, and admitting that he searched for them in vain, Panh tells us: “And so I make this picture. I look at it. I cherish it. I hold it in my hand like a beloved face. This missing picture I now hand over to you so that it never ceases to seek us out”. A set of small hand-turned clay figurines bear witness to and reenact these experiences; as a group they represent indescribable tragedy and the memory of better times.
In France Is Our Mother Country (2015), the French-Cambodian filmmaker takes up the arms he wishes to use to reconstruct the memory of a country: images and audio; film archives as a tool for unveiling the historic truth distorted and manipulated by colonisers. Panh is the founder of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, a place devoted to compiling and restoring the country’s audiovisual legacy, where young Cambodians are also offered training with a view to critically reevaluating their past and portraying their present through filmmaking.
Just as the revolution of Democratic Kampuchea exists only in propaganda films or in the regime’s glorious slogans, for Rithy Panh the search for knowledge begins with deconstructing these collective memories by replacing false images and words with the ethical ideas and words, those lost and found through filmmaking, of literary autobiography, and in so doing bringing to light that other shared, vile, hidden and suppressed memory that opens old wounds and that, in its own way, begins the healing process, opening the possibility of restoring the history of an entire people who are yearning to grieve, for self-affirmation and justice.
His most recent film, Exile (2016), is a visual poem wherein a young Cambodian’s experiences with hunger, extreme survival and death during the years of the Pol Pot dictatorship are remembered and re-enacted: reminiscence, dreams and delusion in the search for a truth lost following an indelible past. In Rithy Panh’s filmmaking, lyricism and horror come together to bear witness to what humans are capable of perpetrating against, and bequeathing to, its own kind.