Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh’s films are rooted in his first-hand experience of living in a remote labour camp under the Khmer Rouge regime, where he experienced personal losses, including witnessing his family die of starvation and exhaustion. Also a writer and producer, Panh most recently produced Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, a biographical film of Loung Ung’s memoir.
Panh, who is best known for his films such as The Rice People; Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell; and the 2014 Oscar nominated The Missing Picture, which masterfully combined archival footage of Cambodian films and Khmer Rouge propaganda with painstakingly handcrafted miniature clay figurines.
He trained as a filmmaker in France, where he managed to escape to as a 13-year-old. Currently based in Cambodia, where he is dedicated to build and develop the country’s film industry, Panh, a Qumra Master opens up to Gulf News tabloid! on transposing personal histories to the screen, the urgency for documenting and of course, his association with one of the world’s biggest celebrities.
The Missing Picture draws on your own personal history of irreparable and indescribable loss. How challenging was it to transpose your story on to the screen?
It’s difficult because a story like this one is a long journey and the difficult part is to find a good form. Of course, content is very important, but if you have good content and it is not adapted to the right form, you can’t make a good film.
To me, form is not something that you can plan beforehand, especially for a documentary. You can’t write it or sketch it. It requires a confrontation with reality, with history, with ethics and morals. After identifying good content you have to find the right form to express that content.
The Missing Picture came together slowly, after much provocation and by refusing different forms, until I finally found the right form.
How long did it take you to zero in on incorporating the clay figurines?
We had already shot for more than one year before the clay figurines were brought in. I only used one sculptor, as I only wanted one hand. I didn’t want a factory. I directed him like you direct an actor. So as he was sculpting I directed the emotions on the figurines sad or happy.
What made the clay figurines the right form for you?
The most interesting point about the clay figures is that clay is an element from nature. We just use clay, water and the sun. We didn’t cook them or burn them. I know that the figurine can’t last for a long time — maybe two to three months before they return to earth. I preferred to let them do their work and return to nature.
In my mind, I am constantly debating on why we don’t let nature take its course. For example, do we have to repaint and preserve the S21 Centre [the Khmer Rouge prison that was the site of the Cambodian genocide] to maintain it like a memorial or should we let time do its work. Changing the window and repainting it is not keeping the original, it introduces new elements. Why don’t we let nature do its work? Should we let nature do its work?
Maybe it’s a good way to turn the page? To move on?
Have you moved on?
No. But I cannot. Maybe for the next generation or the one after that. I’m not sure what is the right way. It’s a question I constantly struggle with.
I left Cambodia when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t really escape, but I needed to go away. And now I’m back but for the new generation I think it’s important to tell the stories of the dead people so they know about humanity. When you tell these stories maybe the next generation can feel stronger and free.
As a filmmaker, do you think there’s a danger in a horrific period of history defining an entire body of work?
I don’t think so. I have only one life and I can’t do all. If I do one thing well I’m happy. I’m already very lucky to have the possibility to make these films about these memories. I was the only one in Cambodia to start producing films on this point of view. Maybe today, if one screens these films in Syria, people will relate to it.
What about Cambodian audiences, especially the younger ones? How do they relate to their country’s past?
The young will prefer to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s normal, but documentaries are educational. If you want your people to disappear then don’t show them anything from their past.
People who have the power to control images and sounds control the world.
I fight to keep my identity and to keep my dignity. Everyone manipulates images. It is good to have entertainment, but when we are taught to read a book why aren’t we taught how to watch film? We need to know what is real, fake and manipulated.
We also now have Angelina Jolie’s perspective on Cambodia through her new film First They Killed My Father, which you’ve produced. How would you describe your involvement in the film?
We are exposed to a lot of Angelina Jolie through the magazines, but she’s a really nice person. She’s a very good activist and has a very good conscience and consciousness about how people live and fight. She’s smart and she wanted to make a film about the country of her adopted son. Cambodia changed her life in a certain way. When she asked me to help her to produce the film I said OK and we talked about it.
When I make a film maybe 10 people will watch it. When Angelina makes a film thousands will watch it and maybe they will be more curious and they will read the book or watch my film or something else.
Hollywood makes films, but Angelina has good intentions — she made a film with us and not about us. Some people come to us and just take the story and make the film. It’s not how she made the film in Cambodia. She was very respectful, involved the local community.
We discussed a lot about the history and the topic, but it’s her film. When I’m a producer I am only there to support what the director needs from me. But in the end, it’s the director’s film.
— Vinita Bharadwaj is a UAE-based writer.