Busan: Cambodia's Rithy Panh on His Cannes Winner 'The Missing Picture' (Q&A)

"Rithy Panh"

Busan's Asia Filmmaker of the Year discusses surviving the Khmer Rouge, why films are like memories and how festival prizes offer protection to the great directors of the developing world.

Capping off an acclaimed year, Cambodian director Rithy Panh is the Busan International Film Festival’s Asia Filmmaker of the Year for 2013. The 50 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.

This year, Panh’s latest film and 12th feature, The Missing Picture, won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s wholly original aesthetic uses unanimated clay figurines depicting Panh and his family’s plight, set against previously unscreened archival footage from the Pol Pot era, with poetic first person narration throughout. Shortly after Cannes, Panh launched Memory! -- Asia’s first cinema-heritage festival in Phnom Penh -- through Bophana, the film archive and multi-media center he established there in 2006. The festival, an unprecedented event for Cambodia, screened 40 films, as well as hosting a series of seminars and workshops for industry professionals, scholars and local students.

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Panh spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about answering the unanswerable questions of genocide, why access to one’s local cinema is central to cultural identity, and how film festival prizes offer protection to the great directors of the developing world.

THR: How did you come to the idea of using unanimated clay figurines juxtaposed against archival footage to narrate your film?

Panh: It wasn’t the original idea. I began shooting a film around two years ago about Khmer Rouge propaganda and how they worked to produce their pictures. I was watching a lot of archival footage from the regime and I started to work with these former Khmer Rouge technicians, interviewing and filming them. One of the photographers said he had shot some images of an execution. But I was never able to find them -- maybe somebody hid them somewhere or they are being kept underground. The search for that image became important to me -- as a record. This was the first “missing picture.” I also asked myself whether an image can ever really tell the truth. An image is not the truth – even if it’s taken from a final act like an execution – it can not tell the full truth. Part of the picture will always be missing. I worked on this subject for a year and half and had many things going through my head.

At some point, I decided I would like to see my family’s old house, where we lived in 1975 when the Khemer Rouge came to power. I had never been back since that time. I wanted to see it. But when I returned, it had transformed completely – it’s now a karaoke bar and a brothel. I remember that place very well from my youth – it was my childhood universe.

So I asked my assistant to build a scale model of the home as I remembered it. I suggested that he make a little figurine of me, as I was at age 12 or 13. I thought first we could make the little boy and then we can build the home around him. When I saw the little glazed figure, the idea for the film completely changed. The missing picture took on more meanings -- of the Khmer Rouge execution, of a family universe that no longer exists in this world, and more.

REVIEW: The Missing Picture (L'Image manquante)

THR: What significance did the clay figures take on for you?

Panh: As Buddhists, statues are more than simply pieces of stone to us. We believe the statue of the Buddha has a kind of soul and is the Buddha in some sense. This is why we can pray to it. Clay is a very interesting and fundamental material – it’s earth, it’s water and -- with fire – it takes on form and life. It was very important to us to give the figurines a very precise expression -- to give them a soul. In fact, what is art? Art is giving to what you create a soul. That’s why it is said God is like an artist.

THR: From straight documentary methods to using unanimated clay figurines -- it sounds like your filmmaking process is a very fluid one.

When you make a fictional feature film, it’s much easier, in a way. Because if you have a good screenplay, once you find the cast and the production company to finance it, you’re okay. You proceed along familiar channels; you bring to life what’s on the page. But if you make a documentary film, for me personally, there’s always this process of searching for some form of expression. I never have any idea what kind of film I will find at the conclusion. It’s always a process of searching. Filming for me is a way of approaching, little by little -- of getting closer and closer to my subject. And that subject itself can transform, or it can remain the same.

THR: Do you consider The Missing Picture a documentary or more of an essayistic film – or something else?

Panh: It’s documentary, but it’s also… it’s very difficult to say what it is. I would simply like to say it’s a film. I researched it like a documentary film, and approached it that way, but in the end some elements have the feel of fiction. For me, the best films are always both. If you take the work of John Cassavetes, for example, they are fictional films but they’re also vividly real – the long takes have the flavor of reality. You could even say the same of early [MartinScorsese. Taxi Driver feels so close to life. I love when you get the feeling of some social reality with a fictional film.

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THR: What’s it like for you personally to return to these memories during your filmmaking process?

Panh: Sometimes one film is like many films put together, and sometimes a collection of films is like one series of memories around a single subject. I cannot answer all of the questions that genocide asks of us. But I try to provide some response. If you watch S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine and then you see Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell and later, The Missing Picture – hopefully, gradually, you can begin to understand a little bit better.

I would actually like to produce a fully fictional film. But if it’s necessary to come back again to the subject of the Khmer Rouge genocide, I will be back again. If it’s not necessary, I will not come. It’s an open question to me. But I don’t consider myself a historian or an investigator of the Khmer Rouge. I consider myself a film director.

THR: What did your win at the Cannes Film Festival mean to you?

Panh: Oh well, it’s pretty great for me and my team, right? (Laughs) But it’s also great for Cambodia, because now we are trying to show young Cambodian directors that making film is a possibility for them. When you make a film and it wins some award at a very select, very difficult festival such as Cannes, it’s good for your fellow film directors and fellow citizens too. Because it shows them that this way is a real possibility.

There’s another important side to these festivals that often gets overlooked. It’s not only about the stars and glamor. For many African and Asian filmmakers working in countries where democracy does not accord the same rights as in, say, the U.S., France or Germany, life and simply doing your work is not easy. When the big festivals -- like Cannes, Toronto and Busan -- give their awards, they’re giving directors something almost like diplomatic protection. They’re saying: don’t touch him; let him work; let him make his movies; this work is important. If the country interferes, the world will surely protest. I try to speak about Jafar Panari, who is under house arrest in Iran, every chance I have. We must remember Panari’s everyday struggle to live as an artist – here, at festivals, it’s particularly important to fight for him.

THR: How do you balance your filmmaking with your work at the Bophana multimedia center you founded in Phenom Phen?

Panh: I split my time. Fifty percent I keep for my own work, and 50 percent I keep for Bophana, where I work as a volunteer. Unfortunately, this means I have to turn down some festival appearances, because the traveling takes a lot of time. And I want to teach and support young Cambodian directors. So if I have the possibility, I would prefer to send them to festivals to see great films and meet directors. These are opportunities I have already been given.

THR: Bophana is foremost devoted to archiving Cambodian audio-visual culture. Why did you decide to establish an archive, rather than say, a film school?

Panh: In Cambodia, where there was such destruction, the Khmer Rouge did not only kill our people but they destroyed our cultural heritage. Most of our early films have disappeared or been destroyed. So we are working to save whatever sounds, images and films of early Cambodia that we can – and trying to create free access for the young people of the country. You cannot build a cultural identity without the images and sounds of your culture. Likewise, I believe you cannot open a school of cinema without having a center like Bophana first. Because young people must first have the possibility to experience and study the great work of their culture.

Most countries in the third world -- poor countries -- they’ve lost their memories. Because everyday, films and cultural artifacts disappear. A 35mm film can last about 100 years in optimal storage conditions. Imagine how long they last when they are discarded somewhere in the heat and humidity of a tropical country. Film is also a memory -- of the character and imagination of a culture.

The very big battle for us is access. Perhaps your culture has things, but it’s also about access -- it must be accessible to everyone, rich or poor. It’s not very expensive to create access today, thanks to digital technology.

THR: What’s an example of something Bophana has made accessible to Cambodia?

Panh: We recently produced a CD called “Forgotten Songs.” It’s Cambodian music from a century ago. These songs could never be heard today in Cambodia. But we discovered a book in a French archive written by an ethnomusicologist at the turn of the century. This was entirely lost music. But here we had the lyrics and the notation. We worked with a committee of musicians and were able to recreate it and record it. And we sent it across the provinces of Cambodia, to pagodas and radio stations. Now it is with us again and people love it. They are very proud to discover their heritage.

We are working to continue this process of rediscovery and creation. If you cannot make moving pictures about yourself, your country and your culture, it’s as if you do not exist anymore in this world of images we live in. Because now when we all switch on our smartphones or our iPads or our computers, it’s all image and sound. All people and cultures must work to secure their place in the digital space. Cinema is also political in this way.