“A Very Small Satisfaction”: Oscar-Nominated Rithy Panh on Cambodia’s Missing Pictures

Academy award nominee Rithy Panh talks about Cambodian memory and history, finding other survivors of Khmer Rouge genocide for his film, “The Missing Picture,” the country’s relationship with Vietnam, and his dream of building a film industry and archive.

2014 0307-7(Image: Catherine Dussart Productions)Rithy Panh is smoking a cigar. He is less than a decade older than I am, French-accented and excessively charming. He’s also the only survivor in his immediate family of mass killings that left close to 2 million people in Cambodia dead between 1975 and 1979. In other words, he is in no way at all like my grandfather, except that he is smoking a cigar. The smell is deeply comforting anyway, and as we discuss mass killings, their justification, the murderers themselves, and the responsibilities of being a survivor, I am grateful for it, again and again. I am glad he is smoking a cigar.

I met with Panh at Bophana Center in the days following the largest political demonstrations Cambodia has ever seen and the government crackdown that ended them. His Cannes Grand Prix-winning film, The Missing Picture, had recently been short-listed for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, but he downplayed the possibility that it might be nominated. It was.

I hadn’t seen this latest of Panh’s works when we spoke, so after our conversation, the filmmaker invited me to return that night for a VIP screening. The film archive building – named for an enigmatic young female inmate of the infamous torture prison Tuol Sleng, code named S-21 by the Khmer Rouge – holds staff offices, film production facilities, a whole floor devoted to showing off the digital archives to visitors, an event space, and a small private screening room. Like Panh’s cigar, the space charmed me: four burgundy-covered benches and ample aircon to stave off the Cambodian heat. I was grateful for it, too, for I was the only audience member at the screening of this Khmer Rouge memoir who was not a survivor of the Pol Pot regime.

“Are you excited about its success?” I ask. “No,” he says.

Cambodian film is closely linked to cultural memory, although sometimes supplants it entirely. History, all of it – from the official versions to those recorded quite recently in newspapers – vacillates constantly and without warning between “truth” and “based on truth” and “emotionally truthful.” Few parse these terms, and recent events have underscored why: The mass demonstrations in Phnom Penh revealed a xenophobic rage toward the Vietnamese, colloquially referred to as Yuon. The rage has deep roots in the post-Khmer Rouge days, when the Vietnamese ousted the murderous regime, but then occupied the country. Today, certain strands of corruption are still said to benefit the Vietnamese, although Prime Minister Hun Sen ignored them entirely the week of my meeting with Panh and hosted a January 7 celebration in honor of the Vietnamese Invasion in 1979, a public celebration of only half a truth.

In Cambodia, various versions of truth battle constantly for recognition. The Missing Picture, however, combines them all, sweetly and smoothly: It is verifiably factual, autobiographical and justly relayed. The simplistic use of carved clay figurines and painted backdrops, the incorporation of Khmer Rouge propaganda films, and Panh’s own memories of the time – these allow the vacillations between competing forms of truth to play out before your eyes on screen, their battle an important part of the story that needs telling. And this one needs telling like few others do: The Pol Pot years are still not investigated in Khmer media, taught in most schools or discussed around the dinner table.

It makes Panh’s Missing Picture a stunning feat, a description I do not choose lightly. My viewing companions and I – including a boisterous Cambodian-American businessman from California – remained silent in our well-cooled burgundy seats after the film ended. Sopheap Chea, an archivist with Bophana, had to come in to fetch us.

A former history major at Royal University of Phnom Penh who mined the video archives for an assignment five years ago, Chea has been a paid staff member since. He finds himself particularly fascinated by the difference between happy workers gleefully performing difficult tasks together in Khmer Rouge propaganda films and the stories he has heard about life during the regime. “It’s incredible. If those who never heard about the Khmer Rouge saw the propaganda film, what would they think about the Khmer Rouge? Happy times,” he says, in awe.

Like Panh’s Oscar-nominated film, the archive the director established eight years ago seeks to honor both versions of truth, but it is a struggle. “Our mission is to help promote the film sector in Cambodia, and create audiences to love film,” Chea tells me.

Panh’s description is more succinct. “Archives are memory,” he says.

It’s a very small satisfaction, to be there and to do a little work. It’s like a carpenter who produces a chair and says, “Oh, it’s good work.” It’s not a big joy. It’s not necessary for me to go to dinner with the stars.

He prefers to talk about Bophana Center over his most recent film, over his oeuvre. This is partially because he is uncomfortable in the spotlight. I don’t know any survivors of mass killings who are not. It is also because Panh wants his story to be about more than his own willful determination.

But I can’t talk to him about the center without talking about his work. “Your films attempt to be archives, in a way,” I tell him when we sit down together. “They refer to previous films, sometimes incorporate previous films. The success of The Missing Picture is also a testament to your archiving work,” I say. “Are you excited about its success?” I ask.

“No,” he says. Then he takes a long puff off his cigar, exhales toward the window, and we begin.

It’s a personal story, for you.

I have made many, many films where the success comes very, very late. When I made One Evening After the War [a 1998 neo-realist drama about the rebuilding capital] everybody said, “Oh, god.” Now they say, “Oh it’s a nice film!” Three to five years later. Seven years later.

So I must be very humble. If you take something like [2004 documentary] S-21 [subtitled The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine], some people don’t want me to do that. They say, “Why do you look in the ground, forever? Why do you dig, again and again?” It’s not true. I don’t dig in the ground again and again. I just make three, four major films about the genocide. And in regard to the 2 million people that died, it’s not enough, four films.

Before me, nobody made films about genocide, except the foreigners. No point of view came from Cambodia. It’s not easy, you know? People here want you to show the sunset on the Angkor Wat temple, the Water Festival, the boat-race boat, the smiling countryside, Country of Wonder. I understand. I like watching films with special effects, romance films. But we have also to face our history.

As a film director, I would like to just make films. But the problem is that I am Cambodian. I lived under the Khmer Rouge regime and a lot of friends and family died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Why you are alive? Why you and not another one? Why me and not my brother? I think that you are here because people help you to be here, to be alive today. You are not here because you are stronger than another one or because you are more clever. No. You are here because people help you come through the genocide. People help you to grow up. To be strong. And it’s a minimum thing that I can do, to talk about that. Who they are. What they did. How much courage they had. How they tried to defend their dignity. It’s one thing I can do.

He asked me if we can set up a committee for the few survivors to meet every week and write their own history. I said, “Yes, I will try.” I went to Europe and I came back, but he was dead.

So when I start making films, I first must pay back all the love that they give to me. I have to pay back to them, just to tell future generations, “Don’t forget your grandfather. Don’t forget your family.”

If you don’t tell their story, how will children now think about them? The fact is, everybody wants to make a film with Angelina Jolie, with Brad Pitt, to use traveling, to use helicopter. Everybody wants to be fun. To make films that are funny, a lot of joy, a lot of love, a lot of happiness. But to make film about memory is not the same joy.

How is it different?

It’s a very small satisfaction, to be there and to do a little work. It’s like a carpenter who produces a chair and says, “Oh, it’s good work.” It’s not a big joy. It’s not necessary for me to go to dinner with the stars.

Joy is a fairly big theme in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, partially inspired by your documentary S-21 and also up for an Academy Award.

Yes, it has been a great success! He told me that S-21 inspired him, yes, but he made his own film. At some times, I disagreed with him. It’s very disturbing for me. But if you are asking for our emails, I cannot give them. [Laughs.]

I bring it up because joy functions differently in S-21 and The Missing Picture than it did in The Act of Killing. But it is still there, in playful scenes of a Vann Nath painting or shots of the clay sculptures being created. Joy despite horror.

Oh, Vann Nath. Yes, it seemed to me that he really wanted to make something about his history. I cannot make again a film about the same story, but Chun Mey said one time, “I regret that you don’t make a film with me, also.”

Vann Nath died in 2011. Your film told of his days as a prisoner, one of only seven men commonly said to have survived the torture facility, although researchers suggest there may have been as many as 23 survivors. Between 12,000 and 20,000 were killed there. Chun Mey, another of the handful of known survivors, also appears in the film.

Chun Mey just wanted to say that, “I have also a story. We can put it somewhere.” He understands that people watch more than read now. He understands it very well. So if you have a film, people can sit down for one hour and a half or two hours, and they listen to you.

I have heard him tell that story. At an event a few years ago, Chun Mey came to share how he was arrested, the sheer dangerous nonsense of being taken away for no reason, and imprisoned and tortured. Your film paints a bigger picture of how illogical it all was. He was a tailor, yes?

Yes. You know, he was sick, recently. He is old! But he is very alert. When the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was going on, he went there every day with his motorbike. Toot-toot. [He makes the sound of a moto and rotates his cigar as if it were a handle.] It’s very far! The road has a lot of traffic jams. Oh, he crazy. . . .

You know, I found . . . him? [Panh searches my face through the cigar smoke to ensure I have grasped his point. He means, after the regime was ousted, he located the Tuol Sleng survivor.] I wanted to see where the survivors are now. I lost Phann Than Chann. I met him a few times before he had a heart attack, and I had very few archives about him.

He was a general of the army, but he was very poor. He still stayed communist! [Panh laughs at this.] Every general is corrupt and has a lot of money, but Phann Than Chann raised pigs to survive. He was very upset because he was a fighter, you know, against the French colonialists, against the Americans, against Lon Nol, against everything. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, he was arrested and sent to S-21, and after the Khmer Rouge fell, he came back again, and he was very upset. He was in Kratje, where they cut the tree [in illegal logging campaigns, one of the reasons behind the recent protests in the capital]. He didn’t want to cut the tree. He liked the tree. So he stayed poor. He raised pig and lived in a small house.

He asked me if we can set up a committee for the few survivors to meet every week and write their own history. I said, “Yes, I will try.” I went to Europe and I came back, but he was dead.

At the time, I talked to Vann Nath and said, “We have to find the last two, three survivors.” We knew that Bou Meng was alive, but we did not know where he was. Someone told me that Chun Mey, was dead. Nobody knew. He had just disappeared. But Nath said, “I met him 10 years ago in front of the airport.”

So I said, “Come on, get into my car. We go to airport.”

There we asked people [about Chun Mey], and one guy said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah – I know him. He went a few years ago to live with [the painter] Ken Svay. So I went to Ken Svay, and he said, “Oh, he went to go work for a company at Kirirom [a national park west of the capital]. So we went to Kirirom. The same day! Maybe at 2 in the afternoon, we arrived to find him. He was sleeping. I arrived with Nath. It was like he came out of a dream. It was a very moving moment.

We talked and cried a lot, of course. He had not seen Nath for 10 years. So I said, “Come on, get in my car.” He said, “You know, I work and I cannot.” And I said, “Well, I’ll call your boss, no problem.”

Those who watch my films now were born after the genocide. My generation don’t want to talk a lot about this story. That’s a problem, here, that we have to face: If you want to build democracy, the rule of law, you must understand this history.

His boss was Mong Reththy, the tycoon. Twenty-five years ago, I made a small short with him because I thought this young guy was very dynamic. [Laughs.] Now I know who he is. I had just asked him a few questions about what he saw as the future of Cambodia. He had lots of ideas about industry. He wanted to buy an airplane line or something like that, already at the time. I thought, “Oh this is good, that there are people like that.” And now he’s a tycoon.

He asked me if I wanted to buy some land and grow some beans with him. I didn’t know. Sometimes I regret that, because if I had done that, maybe I would be a tycoon now. I could buy some land. At the time he worked in construction. He construct a lot, I don’t know where he can get his cement.

And you did not ask …

He already knew how to deal, at the time. You could not have cement like that. Very crazy.

So I asked Mong Reththy, “Do you mind if your guy, Chun Mey . . . ” And he said, “Of course.”

Then I called a friend and said, “You know, I have Chun Mey in my car.” And he said, “No, it is not possible. He’s dead.”

“No, no,” I told him. “We will arrive at 6 PM” I was a little bit afraid because when we got back, everybody wanted to see him. Every newspaper comes and wants you to tell your story because you came back. They want to know where you were. He came through. I told him, “You know, you can talk to one or two people, and then you can go away. Come again. No need to talk to 25 newspapers every week. You go crazy.” He did very well. Little by little.

How long before you began shooting the documentary, then?

Chun Mey had not gone back to S-21 for many years, and he said, “Yes, I would like to see.” So he went back with Vann Nath, and he started to cry. I just switched on the camera.

Did you have the plan for the film?

No, no. It was so moving, sometimes I frame – not very good. Nath is very – he’s too small, or too high [in the frame]. I was not prepared to shoot this one. It was a very interesting moment. It was so hard. We had not money, we had nothing. I won at Yamagata [International Documentary Festival, for The Land of the Wandering Souls in 2001]. I received some money, so I bought a camera and microphone to make S-21. We worked for three years. Sometimes I paid people $80 a month. [He laughs, although that was close to twice the garment industry minimum wage at the time.] I have no money! They want to do the film because it is history, but $80 is not enough.

Somebody gave me a room. We put some money toward a car that we rented and fuel and food that we ate every morning, every lunch, at S-21. Every day we brought our food. Twenty-four hours a day at S-21. [He laughs again.] We sat on the floor. It’s a very, very interesting friendship. We were all united in our project. We have not money, but we go like that.

So you’re all together, 24 hours a day, in a small space – any film set would be tight, but this one was also emotionally charged for everyone involved. You’re with prison guards and former prisoners. I want to ask more about that, because I think it is difficult for American readers to understand.

Oh, but Americans also will see, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you may suffer more than Vietnam. Not in the war, but for people who make the war. PTSD, for example; those guys who come back after three, four, five years in Afghanistan or Iraq. You need also to understand your own history.

Yet during shooting, you were not just learning history, you were physically navigating it, with both the perpetrators and survivors of mass killings. How did that proceed?

I took it very simply. I went to DC-Cam [the Documentation Center of Cambodia], and they kindly provided me with the biography of the soldiers, and in the biography, their village is always listed. [The Khmer Rouge were notorious documentarians and kept extensive notes on soldiers and prisoners alike. After the war, soldiers returned to home villages.] So I went there and said, “I want to make a film with you because you were working at S-21, but I don’t want to implicate your family. Just you.”

The only family that I filmed was the Houy family at the very beginning of the film. The wife and the children and the mother. Because this family knew what Him Houy did. Not everything, but they knew that he worked at S-21.

It’s powerful, and rare, to see members of that generation addressing the Khmer Rouge years on screen.

Those who watch my films now were born after the genocide. My generation don’t want to talk a lot about this story. That’s a problem, here, that we have to face: If you want to build democracy, the rule of law, you must understand this history.

I don’t think the Khmer Rouge Tribunal [officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia] brings everything, but they show us what is justice. It’s not complete. It’s a very heavy machine. But the first time we see an ex-leader face justice is good. And people, maybe, can learn to protest something that they see is unfair. If there’s no justice, if there’s too much corruption, if the rich take everything: maybe you can protest.

Yet the protests last week were squelched, with the killing of five garment workers.

It’s an interesting moment for Cambodia. I hope we decide to move on, to go forward. Or we can return to the [civil war of the] 1980s. Everybody wants to go on. We are now in the global world; we are now in the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a trade alliance]. The realities are not the same as the ’80s, you know, that you are East or West, etc.; the Cold War – it’s not the same. Everything’s global.

If you are a politician and you don’t invest in libraries, in culture, in cinema, you are a criminal.

Everything now is the Yuon’s fault. Yuon invasion, Yuon shot the . . . Yuon. Everybody’s Yuon. Why not Chinese? Why not French? Why not American? The world’s changing, but people are still obsessed: Yuon yuon yuon yuon. And, we need the Vietnamese to understand history. The Vietnamese also need us.

The next ticket is Myanmar, it’s not Cambodia. Myanmar is a very big country, very rich; there are a lot of workers; they can go to the factories, for cheap, and everybody wants to go to this newly opened country. So how to change, how to think about human resources, how to contribute more value with what we produce . . . but I think it is possible, if we reconstruct from our identity, from our memory.

Most people don’t believe that. They think development is only economic. And I think they are crazy. Totally crazy.

What you do here at Bophana Center requires a supportive economy.

If you work with the widows, or with the handicapped, or something like that, it’s much easier to find money than if you work on how to construct a memory and an identity for the next generation. Nobody wants to fund that. We try to explain that it’s very important for this country to raise political issues by giving the next generation back their history.

[Upkeeping] the archives, we need to produce more films; we need hard disks – we need to store them; we need the big machine. Film, you know, if you put it in cold storage, it can last one hundred years.

It’s 96 degrees Farenheit today, and Cambodia is too dusty for film storage.

Yes. So many people now use digital format, but with digital, you don’t know. It may crash two years from now. So we need emigrate them, every time. Sometimes people say, “OK, we help you for one hard disk,” but they do not pay for the salary. I have 40 people here.

Was it easier when King Norodom Sihanouk was able to offer support? He was a devoted filmmaker and film enthusiast, but since his death, support for culture and the arts throughout Cambodia seems to have diminished.

Oh, it stopped. That’s why we need help now. I work as a volunteer here, I take no salary. I didn’t build Bophana Center for me. Only for the satisfaction of seeing young people come and watch the history. It gives me a lot of pleasure. I hope maybe in five or seven years, it becomes a national library, or film archive. I do it because nobody wants to invest. But even now we fund ourselves 35 percent already. That’s great for a cultural institute like this.

Money from event facility fees and admissions charges?

Yes. Next year we hope to have one dollar come from Bophana and one dollar come from the French, or from other foreign donors, for the archive. Archives cost money. But those who don’t want to invest, those who aren’t interested in something that may not bring you a lot of money: It can bring you a bright future. And if you don’t invest in this field, you are a criminal.

If you are a politician and you don’t invest in libraries, in culture, in cinema, you are a criminal. In 10 years you will see that your country, one generation or two . . . they’re lost. They don’t know who they are.

How many libraries does Cambodia have? There’s the French institute, the National Library . . .

Paññasastra University of Cambodia has a very good library, with an excellent librarian.

Yes, but it’s private. You have the Hun Sen Library at Royal University of Phnom Penh, but it’s not enough, for 14 million people. And when you go inside their homes, there are a lot of videos, but no books.

Those videos are often American or Korean-made. So this is not merely a question of housing history or fostering cultural memory, it’s also about creating sense of ownership of media.

If you want to create a cinema industry, you need a center like Bophana. It’s a very special job. But we need. Tomorrow, everything will be in image and sound. 3G, 4G, 5G . . . I don’t know. It will come. You need digital images. It will go very fast. But the film industry is very special. You cannot do everything yourself. Some people in Africa, they are writer, producer and videographer, but in the end, there is not industry. You cannot do everything yourself.

You can train people for screenplay, train people for producing, and in this way you can create industry.

The desire to foster industry makes sense in a developing economy like Cambodia’s, but is there any desire to foster a devoted viewership as well, a cinephilia?

We do that. We have two programs: CineClub and CineSaturday. CineClub they come, watch a film, talk with the director, organize a workshop for the screenwriter. We have a small theater for them. And on CineSaturday, we program the archives, we organize a debate when a director is here.

There’s a young guy, he comes to CineClub. He didn’t know anything! But he’s an addict of cinema now. He watches everything. He made a short film, and he won $2,000. Now he wants to make a feature-length film.

“Oh,” I said, “Stay calm! You just made a short film!”

What about film criticism?

Film critics? Oh, we have not. We tried already to invite journalists to a screening. But we have not film critics. It is a specific job.

This also means that there is not yet cinema in Cambodia. People talk about the Golden Age, but I’m not sure.

The Golden Age – the inventive period after national independence when filmmaking and viewership thrived in Cambodia. It was pretty short-lived.

We just started to make film in the 1960s. We put a lot of energy in film at that time. Our work was just, go in every day, make a film; it’s very funny, make some money. But we have no [range of approaches to filmmaking]. People talk about a Golden Age, but they do not understand. Yes, at the time, we made some films. But it is not “golden” in the sense that we make very big films. We did not have a community of directors, like in India or the Philippines or Japan, where you have a very strong tradition of filmmaking. The films we made in the 1960s are rare.

I made my side, but even the Khmer Rouge have to write their own memory. Even sometimes when they lie. They lie a lot. They are still Khmer Rouge!

We need to keep them, and watch them. But they are not very, very good. [Laughs.] Really. Frankly. They are like a student-made film, a first film, you know. They become interesting when they are archived. Nostalgic. Something that keeps you in the past. It’s very important. But cinematographically . . .

[A knock at the door interrupts his train of thought, and an assistant speaking French. I do not speak enough French to follow the conversation, but from what I can gather, someone has telephoned and would like Panh’s immediate attention.]

An ex-Khmer Rouge. In town.

To see you?

Wants to see me. I don’t know why he wants to see me. Sometimes they want to talk to me about history. Maybe he has some information for my film, but I have no film about the Khmer Rouge in preparation.

Do you believe they come to you because you are viewed as a neutral entity, as accessible to everyone?

Oh, I am not neutral. I think that he respects what I do. He is a high-ranking officer. Sometimes they want to just talk. Sometimes I take some notes, so I can understand from their side. The memory – you have to make from both sides.

I made my side, but even the Khmer Rouge have to write their own memory. Even sometimes when they lie. They lie a lot. They are still Khmer Rouge! [A flash of anger in this statement reminds me that Panh has been speaking very calmly throughout our entire conversation.] You cannot let down the ideology that you believed for 35 years. If you let it down, it means you destroy yourself, or you commit suicide. So they have to rewrite their story, to find a way that it’s not so bad.

But it’s important. Because, you know, injustice is still here.

[He raises his arms to gesture out of the window, toward the rest of Phnom Penh, to all of Cambodia. Then he puts out his cigar.]