Cambodia Celebrates First Oscar Nomination

"The Missing Picture"

"When you can make your people proud of their own culture, that's a good thing," says Rithy Panh, director of best foreign language film nominee, "The Missing Picture."

While his friends and colleagues huddled around a TV watching the Oscar nominations unfurl live on CNN yesterday morning, the anticipation simply became too much for Cambodian director Rithy Panh. "I just fled my office to go for a walk on the streets here in Phnom Penh," he told THR by phone on Friday. "A few minutes later everyone started [texting] me with the good news."

VIDEO: 'The Missing Picture' Trailer

Panh's The Missing Picture, which also won the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, is Cambodia's first film to be nominated for an Oscar. An inventive and profoundly personal piece of work, the film mixes archival war footage with set pieces constructed from intricate clay figurines depicting Panh and his family's plight during the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, which claimed the lives of the director's entire family before he narrowly escaped to Thailand, and later France, where he discovered filmmaking. The film's narration -- which shifts from historical accounts, to personal recollections, to philosophical attempts to come to grips with the nature of genocide -- was written by Panh, but voiced by French mathematician Randal Douc.

"Of course, I'm happy for myself and my film," Panh said of his nomination. "But I'm much happier for the young people here in Cambodia. Something like 70 percent of our film community is under 30 years old -- and they feel proud. We have faced many difficulties in Cambodia, but sometimes good news like this can bring a fresh perspective, and show young artists that there is a path [for] bringing their vision to the world."

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

News of Panh's nomination made the front page of Cambodian local newspapers, including the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily.

Speaking on behalf of Cambodia's Ministry of Culture, deputy director of the Cinema Division Borak Pok said, "This work embrace[s] a Cambodian point of view upon a terrible [time in] Cambodian history, as well as a personal filmmaker's journey. We are convinced that this documentary is one of a kind in its form and content."

"I feel really excited and proud of him," Pok added.

Marveling at the sweep of his life, Panh also said: "It's been a very long journey. From my childhood experiences with the Khmer Rouge, to learning cinema in France, and now, getting nominated for the Oscars – well, it's good. It shows the people of Cambodia that you have the possibility to express your feelings and point of view, that you can look at your own history -- and even if it is terrible -- you can face it, and you can film it, and claim your dignity back."

While Panh has been a regular at Cannes, he said he's nothing but excited about hitting the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the first time on March 2.

"I'm curious to see what the big Oscar show is all about," he said, laughing. "How interesting it will be."