The whole story

Cam­bo­dia’s Os­car-nom­i­nated film­maker is em­broiled in a fight for his­tory.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OSCAR SPECIAL - By MATHEW SCOTT

DI­REC­TOR Rithy Panh was 15 when he es­caped the hor­ror of a Cam­bo­dian labour camp un­der the com­mu­nist Kh­mer Rouge. He never saw his par­ents or his sis­ters again.

His film The Miss­ing Pic­ture at­tempts to tell their story, from life be­fore their in­car­cer­a­tion to when they were caught up in the Kh­mer Rouge’s mer­ci­less 197579 rule.

The film has be­come Cam­bo­dia’s first ever to be nom­i­nated for an Os­car, mak­ing the short list in the Best For­eign Lan­guage Film sec­tion at the Academy Awards to be an­nounced in Los Angeles on March 2.

“It is im­por­tant to me, as a sur­vivor, that we do not for­get what has gone be­fore us and the people who lost their lives,” said Panh, 50, on the phone from Ph­nom Penh.

“The Miss­ing Pic­ture has two mean­ings – one is about a real story that we re­mem­ber and an­other is about what (pic­tures) we never see.”

The Kh­mer Rouge sought to trans­form Cam­bo­dia into its vi­sion of an agrar­ian utopia, which led to the deaths of up to two mil­lion people from star­va­tion, over­work, tor­ture or ex­e­cu­tion.

As well as his par­ents and sis­ters, Panh lost 10 mem­bers of his ex­tended fam­ily dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge’s reign. “I can­not count all my cousins, aunts, un­cles,” he said.

“The sec­ond ‘ miss­ing pic­ture’ is about my per­sonal story. I re­gret that I do not see my fa­ther nowa­days. If he was alive, maybe I would take him for a walk along the riverfront, or for meals. I can­not have this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

As the reign of the Kh­mer Rouge in Cam­bo­dia was near­ing its end, and Viet­namese forces be­gan en­ter­ing the coun­try, Panh fled from his dis­tracted cap­tors, mak­ing his way first to an in­tern­ment camp in Thai­land and then on to Paris.

He even­tu­ally turned to film as a means to deal with his past, study­ing at L’In­sti­tut des hautes tudes cin­matographiques.

He re­turned to Cam­bo­dia in 1990 and de­vel­oped a se­ries of fea­ture films and doc­u­men­taries in­clud­ing One Evening Af­ter The War (1998) and S-21: The Kh­mer Rouge Killing Ma­chine (2003) which told the sto­ries of people caught up on ei­ther side of the ter­ror.

Ar­chives de­stroyed

The Miss­ing Pic­ture uses footage from the pe­riod – mainly pro­pa­ganda films – and clay dolls where ma­te­rial is miss­ing to re­count the hor­rors.

The spe­cial ef­fects were driven by ne­ces­sity. Cam­bo­dia’s film ar­chives, which dated as far back as the late 1800s, were mostly de­stroyed by the Kh­mer Rouge. Panh has ded­i­cated his life to seek­ing out and restor­ing lost films he be­lieves tell the story of his coun­try.

He has been one of the driv­ing forces be­hind the Bophana Au­dio Vis­ual Re­source Cen­tre in Ph­nom Penh, which opened in 2006 and aims to pre­serve the coun­try’s ag­ing film stock, along with recorded ra­dio trans­mis­sions, news­reels and pho­tos.

Be­cause of the Os­cars “a lot of people will be talk­ing about this film, so we want to use that to get them to talk about Cam­bo­dia,” said Panh.

“Maybe people can de­cide to help us to save the films we have found, and help us con­tinue our work.”

The Miss­ing Pic­ture won the Un Cer­tain Re­gard sec­tion at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val last May while Panh’s work to­wards restor­ing Cam­bo­dia’s film ar­chive was ac­knowl­edged at the Bu­san In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in Oc­to­ber, where he was named Asian Film­maker of the Year.

Rich his­tory

The Bophana cen­tre aims to ed­u­cate a new gen­er­a­tion of Cam­bo­dian film­mak­ers while hold­ing reg­u­lar screen­ings of re­cov­ered footage.

“Cam­bo­dia has a rich his­tory that is not only about the Kh­mer Rouge – they were only here for four years. We want people to know our whole story and film helps do that.”

As the in­ter­na­tional film in­dus­try in­creas­ingly turns to dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, the di­rec­tor fears the skills – and equip­ment – needed to re­store old film stock might soon be lost.

“Time might be run­ning out for us and we need as much help as we can get,” said Panh. “Film tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing so we need to act as soon as pos­si­ble. As the in­dus­try goes dig­i­tal it will be­come harder for us to re­store old films. The big chal­lenge in the fu­ture might be how people will ac­cess these films, and ac­cess their own mem­o­ries.”

The film­maker says he feels it is his re­spon­si­bil­ity as a sur­vivor to make sure that the past is ac­knowl­edged and ac­cepted.

“I am here be­cause those who died helped me to be here,” he said. “My films are a trib­ute to them. This is a way that their dig­nity is re­turned to them.” – AFP

Preser­va­tion drive: Cam­bo­dian film di­rec­tor Rithy Panh look­ing at movie equip­ment at the Bophana cen­tre in Ph­nom Penh. He has ded­i­cated his life to seek­ing out and restor­ing lost films he be­lieves tell the story of his coun­try. — EPA Photo/Mak Re­missa

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