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Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has reached a stage in his career where his creativity is completely untethered.
The 57 year-old auteur has won numerous plaudits for his documentary work chronicling the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide, a historical tragedy he endured firsthand — watching his parents, siblings and extended family perish of starvation and forced labor — before he escaped to Thailand and, later, France, where he discovered filmmaking.
In 2013, Panh achieved a major breakthrough with The Missing Picture, a documentary that saw him abandon the cinéma vérité methods of his early work in favor of a wholly original aesthetic in which he used unmoving clay figurines, archival footage and poetic first-person narration to dramatize his family’s plight during the Pol Pot era. The meditative film won him the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination in the best international film category.
Panh’s 2020 feature, Irradiated, which premiered in Berlin, found him casting his net wider, interrogating the very nature of evil through the deployment of harrowing images of Hiroshima, Auschwitz and elsewhere.
To some extent, the director’s latest work combines the methods and themes of these prior, searingly unforgettable films. In Everything Will Be OK, which takes its title from the T-shirt slogan of a teenager who was killed in Myanmar’s 2021 pro-democracy protests, Panh returns to — and advances — the figurine-based filmmaking technique he developed for A Missing Picture, placing his tiny characters in meticulously composed dioramas, accompanied by ruminative narration, creating a peculiar 21st century dystopia. Tiny animal figurines — pigs, buffalos and lions — are shown to have overtaken and enslaved humans. Cut after studying the earth’s former overlords’ archives of images, the creatures proceed to repeat history’s failings — first as tragedy, then as farce.
Ahead of Everything Will Be OK‘s world premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter connected with Panh via Zoom from his home in Phnom Penh to discuss the inspiration and construction of this singular work.
Since this is such a unique film, I’m curious to hear how you summarize or describe it to people when you’re telling them about it for the first time.
Oh, it’s very difficult. I say that I hope you will have time to watch it two or three times, because you will see more and more things. It’s like a mille crêpe cake — many layers, you know.
When I started the film, it was the middle of lockdown. I was just staying at home in France, and I didn’t know what to do, or what was going on. Now, two years later, we know better. But at the time, if you remember, we were just stuck there and we didn’t know how long it would last or how serious it would become. One of the things that disturbed me was how when you went out, you saw the streets totally empty. It reminded me of a long time ago, when I was a boy, and the Khmer Rouge came to power in ’75. They emptied the whole city of Phnom Penh. So it was very strange for me, like half reality, half a nightmare. But my imagination was very stimulated.
So many things in the news have this strange half-real, half-nightmare feeling. During the lockdown, people went onto their smart phones and social media and into the virtual world even deeper. In Myanmar, near my home in Cambodia, we saw the dictatorship’s terrible crackdown. In the United States, such a rich, powerful, supposed-to-be stable country, we were of course hoping Donald Trump will lose, but then when he did, people in Buffalo skins attacked the capital. You saw how — in this time of internet information — if someone tells a lie enough times, and his voice is loud enough, and the internet repeats it a million times, it becomes truth. I am not an anti-vaxxer, I believe in science and I fight against those people. But if you look back to when they invented the polio vaccine, they gave this science to the world for free — they said it was a gift to the children of the world. There was no licensing fee. Now, as we fight a new pandemic, they have instead handed the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy people a loaded weapon, because they can say it’s all about money and Big Pharma controlling you. Well, part of that is true: It is about money. So, this lockdown time was very strange for me. Everywhere I look, I feel the fragility of our democracy and how quickly totalitarianism can return. This film is a response to that.
So how did you get started?
When I was locked down, I didn’t know what to do. I was depressed. I felt powerless. I’m not a journalist; I’m not a politician. So I was thinking, what can I do? How can I resist? Then I went back to cinema. I watched some of the films and filmmakers I love — Chris Marker, Dziga Vertov, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. All of these ideas that were troubling me, I saw that they already explored all of these things in their work. None of these horrors are new; it’s all already there in the history of cinema. And that liberated me.
I talked to my people and I said, if we don’t do anything, we are accepting the conditions the virus placed us in. Even though we’re in lockdown, vaccines and masks aren’t the only way we can fight back. We can free our imaginations and create. So we put on masks, we washed our hands, and we were very safe and careful — but we went back to our small office to make a film.
How did you settle on the particular methods you used to create this film — stationary figures, archival footage, found sounds and voice-over?
Well, I didn’t really decide. The pace of life and the lockdown decided for me. These were things I could work with. But I like very much working with figurines, and I said to myself years ago that I wanted to make three films this way. I like to explore their possibilities. But I didn’t have a subject or genuine situation that fit with this form back then. So with the pandemic, I said, “Okay, we can make a second one now, and the figurines can have a life.” I have more questions than answers about what’s going on in the world, but the figurines can help me respond.
Can you share a little about the process of making the figurines? How involved are you in their design and creation?
Well, I just talk a lot, maybe too much. And I send lots of photos and ideas. When we started, I was in France, and Mang Sarith, [our sculptor], was in Phnom Penh. So he made me some pigs based on images I sent to him, but it wasn’t right. Then I said, “make me a Pol Pig, like Pol Pot.” And then he said, “Oh, yes, okay, I think I get it.” The idea for using a pig for characters came to me from thinking about Donald Trump. You know, pigs seem very stupid but they’re also, somehow, very smart. And pigs seem very close to humans, as an animal. Did you hear how they just transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a person? So then a big pig using a smartphone, saying “the smartphone is my constitution” — this felt right. So I said, make me that.
And how do you go about structuring a film like this? It seems clear that you don’t just sit down and write the script start to finish. I imagine it’s a more fluid process?
First, we have to create the subjects and how they are connected. It’s kind of like a solar system of subjects. You know you have the sun and you have many planets around it. It’s kind of like making a sculpture, where I’ll say, let’s turn it around like this and focus on Jupiter, for example, and make the whole scene and scenario on this little planet. Then we move on to another one, and find ways to connect them. It’s not like writing in sequence. When I dream about one situation, we make it. Sometimes if we shoot a sequence and it’s not satisfying, we shoot it again or abandon it. Then a lot happens in the editing, shaping the material, new ideas or going back to create something that we feel is missing. At the beginning it’s just a fragment of film, but over time we put it all together. Music and words come at the same time near the end, after the first construction of the film.
Because the figurines are stationary and only the camera moves, it feels as if the sound is particularly important in the construction of the film, because of the way it gives life to the little characters. How do you approach the sound on a film like this?
For this kind of film, yes, the sound is very important. Compared to The Missing Picture, I think we took our use of sound and the way we shot the figurines even further this time. This project is actually very cinematic, because the elements of cinema — cinematography and sound —are very tangible to you as you watch the film. Some of the sound is more obvious — like the sounds the animals make — and some is more abstract, I should say. Sometimes I had an idea in my mind for a background sound or tone, and I tried to describe it to my team and it was very difficult. We took some sound from the NASA website — recorded sounds from other planets or outer space — and we combined it with recordings of wind here on earth. It’s like composing music, with many different tracks or layers combined. So even when there is not too much to hear, there’s something interesting there. Even sequences with silence need to have some sound — maybe a recording of the silence of the desert. You can’t use total silence — which is its own strange sound, in a way. The idea is to create something textured and very physical. I like working with sound very much. It’s a big pleasure for me when I have a sound sequence to edit.
There are so many poetic and philosophical ideas layered through this film. What are you hoping audiences in Berlin will take away from the experience?
I hope that people will simply watch, and that it will remain in their heads — even a few seconds is okay for me. I’m not asking the audience to understand it all. We cannot understand it all, and something you can understand entirely is useless. But take a part that connects with you in your mind, and try to enjoy it or have some reflection on it. And then continue to hope and to live. I hope the project will remind you that through shared creativity we will remain free and connected. Everything will be OK.
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