Rithy Panh: Fact and Fiction at the Busan Film Festival

Rithy Panh, director of Rice People and S21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, is an icon of art house cinema, political, unique and charming at the same time. The iconic image could be another of his confections – a tasty work built on uncomfortable facts.

In the incomplete evidence of a 50-minute dialogue onstage at the Busan International Film Festival on Sunday, Panh comes across as both contrarian and principled. A grumpy veteran, yet a filmmaker still curious to learn.

“If it weren’t for the Khmer Rouge, maybe I wouldn’t be a filmmaker,” he said of the communist insurgents who won Cambodia’s civil war in 1975, and whose brutality and atrocities he spent a lifetime documenting and exposing.

Panh’s family lost everything to the marauding Khmer Rouge or during their five-year rule. He was internally deported to the rice fields, fled to Thailand and was later sent to France as a refugee.

“I dreamed of having a camera to record what was happening,” he said. “[At one moment] I wanted to go to Australia where I heard there is a lot of desert and I got lost. Instead, the UN told me I was going to France.”

There he tried to establish himself as a painter – concentrating on other genocides such as those in Auschwitz and Palestine – and later began his training as a filmmaker.

As the subject of one such presentation, inappropriately branded by high fashion house Chanel and the BIFF Asian Film Academy, Panh is a curious case study. He slumps low in his chair, wears his wide-brimmed hat throughout the hearing, and speaks in soft, eloquent chunks that suddenly seem to skip and take a new direction.

Panh’s responses suggest deep reserves of anger and humor that may be intertwined. “My ability to preserve the poetry of childhood saved my life. It protected me from the Khmer Rouge, hunger and Khmer unimagination,” he once said, describing a time singing his own words over Bee Gee tunes.

A question from the audience about his recent experiences as chairman of the jury of the TikTok film competition in Cannes elicited “two different answers” from the master. (In May, Panh resigned to protest the short video company’s alleged interference in the judging process, but later rejoined.)

The company received 70,000 film submissions and selected 120 for judges. “That was my first conflict with TikTok,” he said tonelessly.

But he also used the example to point out the artistic possibilities of vertical video formats and short films, to think about the topic of deepfakes and the responsibility of artists. “I have no answers,” he said. “But I see a big company using this medium.”

He praised documentarians and people who use their phones as cameras to record events. He suggested this should happen today in Asian trouble spots like Afghanistan and Myanmar.

“You have to collect the details today. If you don’t, history will repeat itself,” he said. “In Cambodia, I train people in documentaries first, even though I know they will move on to fiction. Ken Loach and Kubrick incorporate a lot of reality into theirs [fiction] movies.”

Panh confirmed that he is currently archiving Khmer Rouge propaganda films in Cambodia. “These are feature films,” he said gruffly, before returning to the subject of genre fluidity. “A feature film is stronger when the director comes from documentaries.”

In response to another audience question about animation, Panh replied that this is not for 3D animation. He described it as “too clinical” and devoid of poetry.

In “The Missing Picture,” Panh used a technique borrowed from children’s literature – clay figures – for large parts of a documentary film dealing with an issue, the Pol Pot era of 1975-79, that is too painful to compare with live action to be treated.

“The strongest part of any film is the poetry,” Panh said. “With Picasso, the older he got, the more childlike he became [his work] became.”

https://variety.com/2022/film/news/rithy-panh-fact-fiction-film-busan-1235397213/ Rithy Panh: Fact and Fiction at the Busan Film Festival

Charles Jones

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