Monday, February 06, 2006

Cambodian director talks about his work and the ‘nuclear bomb’ that struck his homeland

By Lekha Shankar
Thai Day

He is recognized as the cinematic voice of Cambodia.

Rithy Panh escaped from his native Cambodia in 1979, at the end of the the Khmer Rouge genocide, to neighboring Thailand. Then, he moved to Paris where he studied cinematography. He returned to his homeland more than two decades later in 1990.

Since then, Panh has made nearly 10 documentary films on the genocide, including S21,The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine which screened at many festivals around the world, including one in Bangkok.

The soft-spoken and insightful director lives between two countries, using France as his home base, and Cambodia as the subject of his movies.

Panh, who flies to his native Cambodia every month to make movies that revisit his country’s torrid and tumultuous past, also heads Fonds Sud Cinéma, a government-sponsored funding agency in Paris.

His latest film, The Burnt Theatre, will screen at the Bangkok International Film Festival this month. The film centers around the burning down of the country’s National Theatre, which to Panh, implied the burning down of Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
As in his earlier film, S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Panh zeroes in on the actual “survivors” of the event – in this case, the artists of the country – who speak with pain and anger about the near-eradication of art in Cambodia.

The reclusive director vented his pain and angst in a rare interview at the all-Asian Osian-Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi, India, where his movie screened, soon after it premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

When exactly did you leave Cambodia?

Well, I escaped from the country when I was a young 14-year-old during the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. I stayed in Thailand for a while before I moved to Paris. There, I studied cinematography for two years. I returned to Cambodia only in 1990. But after that, I’ve been coming back regularly to make my movies.

Have the scars of the genocide healed for you, now that you live overseas?

It never will. It’s always within me, and I have no words to describe it. It was like a nuclear bomb that devastated our country. I guess we were the sacrificial generation, and it will take another two or three generations to reap the benefits of our sacrifices.

I can never forget it, but I’ve told myself that I have to deal with it if I have to survive. And I’ve chosen cinema to revive my memories, as I want the memories to survive.

What does cinema mean to you?

Cinema to me is a rewinding of memory, so that the present and future generations can remember the past and learn many lessons from it. The genocide led to a drastic eradication of memory in my country. We lost our identity and our dignity, and I want to reinstate these through my films.


Are your films a cathartic experience for you?
They definitely are. They’re not just about aesthetics but about my life and my memories. I can’t make nice films with nice subjects and nice people, because my life was very different. I’ve been so close to death, and making films now is like a rebirth for me.

What was the impact of your movies in Cambodia?
Well, they led to many arguments and discussions. This ‘talking’ is very important in my country. I want to jog their memories and give back my people energy lost during the genocide.

Do you feel at home coming back to Cambodia?

Of course, this is where I belong. The most important thing about making films for me is that I come back to my country and to my people, who I still miss a lot.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of making films on Cambodia, as an expatriate?

The disadvantage, of course, is that I’m away from my homeland and my people. But the advantage is that I have ‘distance’ which is importance for an artist. I’m also able to live in two countries, imbibe two cultures, speak two languages, etc.

Is it easy making films there?

Not at all. It took me five years to train people to help me shoot my films, as we have no film culture in Cambodia at all. I sold my house, car, etc. I now have a team of five, who have become my film crew.

What prompted you make The Burnt Theatre?

It started with the actual burning down of the well-known Suramet Theatre in 1994. No one seems bothered to erect it again – it’s like a blot in our memory. We all need culture; we need theater. And theater needs a physical space for performances.

I’ve used real people to speak the truth in the film. But more important is the fact there seem to be two art forms in my country now – one for the artists and one for the masses. This is the effect of globalization, and it’s happening in most countries around the world. We used to enact the Ramayana for seven days, but now, it’s done in a few hours. The eradication of memory seems to have led to a near-eradication of the arts in my country.

What is government’s role in protecting the arts in Cambodia?

They have no clear or strong policy, which is a pity because we need to protect our cultural heritage. We don’t need any cultural imperialists from outside. I admire people like Princess Buppha Devi who has done so much to keep alive our dance forms, but we need a lot more people like her.

Are your films a social critique of your country?

I prefer to call them a reflection rather than a critique. It’s so easy to criticize, but we need to reflect, ponder and move forward. Artists definitely have a role to play in society. They help to make the people think about the past and the future.

What are the projects you are working on in Cambodia?

I’m working on many projects, but the most important is the film center I plan to set up to train personnel for the industry. I’ve been given a building for this by the Ministry of Culture, and have to now work on special software programs, lecture courses, etc.

Do you think we need to hold more purely ‘Asian’ film festivals?

Certainly yes. We need more ‘Asian’ film festivals like the Osian-Cinefan festival in India, because we need to see and believe in our own cinema first. We need to understand each other’s films and protect our Asian culture.

Why is Asian cinema holding center stage today?

They have new stories, narrative styles, and filmmakers who are unique. We have talented directors from so many Asian countries – Korea, Taiwan, Thailand. I admire Korea for the way they are promoting their film industry.

As for Thai cinema, it has moved ahead a lot and will certainly be in a position of strength in a few years. I’ve seen the movies of young Thai directors like Pen-ek Ratanaruang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and enjoyed them. I love the sights, sounds, and smells of Thailand, and am really looking forward to attending the Bangkok International Film Festival.

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