Rithy Panh is a well-renowned Cambodian filmmaker. He has dedicated his life to the examination of the Khmer Rouge tragedy in Cambodia, a personal and painful enterprise as he was amongst the Khmer Rouges’ victims and lost most of his family during these 4 years of atrocities and killings (1975-79). When he escaped the working camps, he was only 13 years old. After a few months in a HCR refugee camp at the Thai border, he settled in France where his studies led him to start a career as a filmmaker. Since then, Rithy Panh has never ceased to fulfil his need to make sense of the Khmer rouges tragedy. S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012) in particular are fascinating pieces of work for many reasons. Both investigate the atrocities that took place in Tuol Sleng, the Security Prison 21 (S-21) under the Khmer Rouge. S-21 gathers not only testimonies from the surviving victims of the Khmer Rouge who were held and tortured in this prison. It also gives space to both the memories and voice of the guards and the torturers.
In December 2013, I had the privilege to conduct an interview with Rithy Panh in Phnom-Penh (Cambodia). The interview was commissioned by the French academic journal Cultures & Conflits, and the interview was published online in April 2014. The meeting with Rithy Panh took place at the Bophana Centre, an audiovisual resource centre Rithy Panh co-founded in 2006. During our conversation, we talked in length about his approach as a filmmaker but also about Kaing Guek Eav (aka Duch), the head of the Khmer Rouge’s internal security branch, and Khieu Ches (aka Poeuv), an ordinary guard of Tuol Sleng.
Vivid Memories: atrocities re-enacted
Poeuv was a guard at Tuoel Sleng when he was only 13. In S-21, the spectator is confronted with a now mature man, who describes to the cameraman what his tasks were at Tuol Sleng and where in the prison he performed his duties. These scenes are filmed in situ, at the prison itself. This oral testimony is complemented by the body language Poeuv uses in front of the camera: he runs from one cell to another, he shouts as he used to shout all day back then, he yells as he used to yell at the prisoners, he bites the air as he used to bit and torture them. Rithy Panh explained how these scenes took place, how the body language worked as an outlet, and how difficult this has been for him, having to watch, film, process these acts from a filmmaker’s perspective, not from that of the victim he once was. As such, Poeuv shows how memory reifies itself in many ways – and how pain and guilt can become vivid, enacted in powerful and very disturbing ways. Panh’s work constitutes as such a unique example of how to deal with the past, its long-lasting traces and its everlasting wounds:
Poeuv was on the scene at Tuoel Sleng. We ask him everything: what he was hearing (some loud radio), what he was seeing (neon light atmosphere), and we reconstituted this environment. We switched off the projectors, we only used neon lights. We tried to be closer to the reality, even 30 years later. We put some landmarks: lights, spaces, sounds. And then, he shows, he goes. At the end of the filming, he was feverish, as if we extracted something out of him. A few days later, he came back, acting as a friend, with sugar he made himself. I found it difficult. I did not take the sugar, but we did work together again”. (∗)
The process of the Khmer rouge’s machine
Duch is also central in Rithy Panh’s work. At the centre of his documentary Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, Panh’s examination of Duch mobilises another of his strength as a filmmaker: his attention to details in his account of a political, social, and individual process. Duch oversaw Tuol Sleng. He was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which convicted him in 2012 of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture and sentenced him to life imprisonment. For Panh, Duch incarnates the Khmer Rouge machine:
When we look at things carefully, we understand better. S-21 allows a condensed understanding of this totalitarian regime. To study ideology courses that were organised back then, for instance, is of paramount importance. It is the machinery that explains the genocide. S-21 has defined the methods, who were the enemies”.
Duch was at the heart of the machinery, and this how Panh describes his encounter with him during the filming:
In the confrontation with Duch, there is something that appeared clearly from the very beginning: he felt superior. He is older than me, more experienced. He spent his life in the prison world: he was a prisoner under the Sihanouk regime, then Director of Tuol Sleng under the Khmer Rouge regime, now he is a prisoner again. He knows the codes, the realities of a prison environment: the tensions, the torture, the executions. He knows that I am working precisely on that, that I am investigating something he has engineered. He knows I somehow need his knowledge”.
Rithy Panh clearly acknowledges the ambiguity of his position in this particular context. The filming took place during the his trial hearings, and Panh felt instrumentalised on many occasions by Duch who, obviously, used his work as a practice for his own defence in front of the judges. However, the documentary made Panh realised that he won against Duch. The documentary shows no less than a man, in his own words and descriptions, who subscribed to the Khmer Rouge ideology, who ran one of the most atrocious prisons of the Khmer Rouge regime, who, every single day, reported tortures, executions, inhumane treatments on a register with great amounts of detail and cold-blood comments. Duch has certainly served as a catalyst for Rithy Panh’s investigation and his quest for documents, testimonies and archives. This quest is embodied further in Panh’s latest film: The Missing Picture, released in 2013.
Making sense of the tragedy: the craving for archives
The Missing Picture constitutes the most personal work of Rithy Panh, based on his own memories of the Khmer Rouge. The film is aesthetically very original as it uses clay figurines to portray Panh’s story. He explains why he chose to use clay figurines in an interview he gave in 2013:
I was looking for a way to tell the story of what happened, but I was involved so directly in this tragedy that it would have been very hard for me to make a fiction film”.
As highlighted in this interview, the clay figures offered to Panh an ingenious solution to a long-standing problem: there were virtually no historical records documenting dictator Pol Pot’s war crimes from the perspective of the victims who had been forcibly evacuated from the capital city Phnom Penh to work in rice field:
The Khmer Rouge tried to delete everything. They tried to erase our past, our personality, our land, our sentiment. What we tried to do in The Missing Picture was to reconstruct our identity, to bring it back to the people through cinema”.
This reconstruction is the very purpose of the Bophana Centre Rithy Panh co-founded in 2006. The Centre answers Rithy Panh’s need to make sense of the tragedy. This Centre, and all the efforts Rithy Panh deployed to run it ever since, is without doubt the project of which he is the most proud. The Centre is the quintessence of Panh’s self-given mission: to gather all the sounds and images of Cambodia, especially during the Khmer Rouge’s period, to process them and make them available for the general public. The Bophana Centre is a repository of Cambodian History, and its existence alleviates Rithy Panh’s obsession that the faces, the voices, the colors, the sounds, may disappear and be erased from the collective memory:
Cambodia is a young country, and we must give prospects to the youth. The past tells us what may happen tomorrow; and images are here to make us think and feed us; it is a great strength to move forward. Education helps us analyse the images and master the techniques; creation enables us to speak up but also express what we see and how we feel”. [Excerpt from the presentation of the Bophana Centre]
The name given to the Centre, Bophana, refers to a young girl executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977. During the five months of torture and detention at Tuol Sleng before her death, her act of resistance was to write love letters to her husband. Bophana is central to Rithy Panh’s work:
For the last 25 years, I have worked for Bophana. A face, a name. The more individuals are encompassed in a single unit (the victims of Tuol Sleng, the prisoners of Tuol Sleng), the more I want to restore the variety of their identities. This goal, with more than a million of victims during the Khmer Rouge, is endless. I have only one life, so I have chosen a single face, a single name. I work and make films for her”.
(∗) Read the full interview published in Cultures & Conflits: “Filmer pour voir. Ombres et Lumieres sur le genocide Khmer” (April 2014). All the excerpts taken from the interview mentioned above, have been translated from French by Amandine Scherrer
Link to the Bophana Audiovisual Resources Centre