The Tweeted Picture

Rithy Panh usually tweets at night, when he cannot sleep—which is most of the time, most nights. He seems to find it most comforting around midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., the hours when most denizens of Phnom Penh are either in bed or far gone in some bar or beer stall, lingering over his iPad with a Dominican cigar and sending out streams of images into the darkness, to anyone who might be awake and watching.

He does it fast and in quick succession, image after image: a photograph, a doodle, a film still. Mr. Panh does not know who might see his posts, and he does not necessarily care. His first imperative is simply to tweet.

Rithy Panh (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Rithy Panh (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

“If you watch the followers, it is not good,” he said in a recent interview—smoking, of course, a Dominican cigar from behind his desk, which is cluttered with French books, invitations, old ties and bottles of the natural dietary supplement moringa (he takes two a day, every day).

“If you watch them, you tweet for them. I don’t want to do things to have followers. I want to do it like you send the bottle into the sea. Like before, people sent a message in the sea. When we were young, we played things like that. And you hope that people on the other side of the world will get the bottle one day.”

Mr. Panh is by far Cambodia’s most successful filmmaker, and his films are complicated operations involving dozens of crew members. Part of the appeal of Twitter, to him, is its solitary nature, the fact that it lets him distill his own quirky, literate visual sensibility and disseminate it without mediation from a cast or crew.

“They are very lucky, photographers, because they work alone,” he says. “We cannot work like them; you need at least two people, one for the sound, one for the images. When you make a feature film it’s 50, 60 people around you. It’s interesting, but I think that the writer and photographer are more lucky than me because they take a small camera or small book and go away and just sit down and write.”

And unlike his day job, tweeting is perfectly suited to the solitary vigils of an insomniac. He will often save up images he comes across and loves, stockpiling hundreds of them on his iPad for nights when he cannot fall asleep. “I have difficulty sleeping, so often I work very late at night, so I send a few tweets before I feel sleepy, then I go to sleep. Or sometimes I send very early in the morning. It means that I did not sleep all the night. Maybe the idea to tweet comes from the impossibility to sleep.”

Mr. Panh created his Twitter account after an unknown admirer of his work started a Facebook account for him and he began to gain online fans.

“I saw that some people followed me, some young people followed me, so I was interested to observe how they used social media networks,” he said. “At the end, everyone goes to the same point: It is the picture of the self while we are eating. Very curious. Everyone starts from something interesting, and at the end you just exhibit your clothes, your food, and you lose…. It is very disturbing. So after that, I see what we can do with Twitter, and liked very much some photos and some paintings and I started to send a few photos like that and with ideas of cinematography, history of filmmakers, philosophers, something like that.”

The result is a carefully curated phantasmagoria of visual ephemera, one that seemingly never stops. Since joining the social networking site in September 2012, Mr. Panh has sent out over 12,000 tweets, the vast majority of them single images with minimal captions, usually just the name of the photographer or artist who produced them. Sometimes they are marked with little more than a “<3” or a “J”.

The important thing to him is the images, which flow fast and furious—sometimes he sends out 10, 11, 12 in quick succession, “like a wave”: a photo of a quizzical Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a copy of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” inverted atop his head; Muddy Waters posing with his wife; a still-life of bulging-eyed fish shoved face-down into drinking glasses; a screenshot from “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”; a John Cage score; a Guillaume Apollinaire poem; Jack Nicholson with his chin in a giant wedge of watermelon; an extravagantly mustachioed Frank Zappa cuddling a cat to his chest like a baby as he poses with his parents in an all-purple living room.

After a while, themes emerge. He likes Balthus, Giacometti, Modigliani, Camus, and 19th-century portraits of American Indians. He seems to have a thing for Marilyn Monroe and Romy Schneider —in fact, for curvaceous women of all sorts, and for their nude bodies, especially when filtered through the luscious, dreamy sensibility of photographers like Edward Weston and Irving Penn. He maintains a trove of behind-the-scenes shots from the sets of French New Wave films.

And unlike the proprietors of many of Cambodia’s other most-followed Twitter accounts, he doesn’t especially care for politics, except when he can use images to gently mock the pomposity of politicians and deflate their totems. On Human Rights Day this week, Mr. Panh’s only comment was a photograph of a grinning schoolboy with a slate bearing a chalked equation: “5+2=8.”

One of his favorite Twitter accounts other than his own is Hun Sen’s Eye, a parody account written in the purported voice of Prime Minister Hun Sen as a loopy, lascivious dictator who nonetheless has a gimlet eye for the hypocrisy of others.

“I don’t know who writes it,” he said of the account, “but I was impressed by him. Pffft, sometimes it is very nice! It is not easy to write two lines and you can find something in reality, but he turns it to the humor. It is very British humor. I like it. I follow him.”

“Sometimes politics are so hard, so I go to Hun Sen’s Eye and see what he says about what happens in daily life. Very interesting. If politicians have humor, have love, can take it easy, it would be very interesting for them to read some tweets.”

Mr. Panh’s only discernable political stance is a kind of apolitical humanism, a deep-seated belief in the power of individual human voices. In his most recent and most lauded film, “The Missing Picture,” the concept of an image, a picture, in all its particularity, is itself a form of resistance against the dehumanization inherent in totalitarianism. The titular “missing picture” originally referred to a photograph of Khmer Rouge executions that he searched for but could never find; the only images of the regime were propaganda photos and videos pumped out by Pol Pot’s government.

But as the film goes on, other missing pictures emerge. One is an image of his family made whole again, a picture that exists only in imagination. Another is the film itself, an attempt to reconstruct what was broken by the Khmer Rouge. The movie pre-sents an argument that, through film and photography—no matter how ephemeral—Cambodia’s broken past can be made whole again.

At several points in “The Missing Picture,” viewers are shown loops and reels of old film scrolled through Mr. Panh’s fingers until it begins to resemble a Twitter feed full of images. The film depicts an almost unbearably young and beautiful Princess Buppha Devi performing a classical Apsara dance for a delegation of visitors in the mid-1960s.

“I collected scraps of film that I watched using a box and a small light,” the film’s narrator explains as an image of the princess dancing flickers onscreen. “Then that world was destroyed.”

There are very few images in Mr. Panh’s Twitter feed of the Khmer Rouge and the brutal new world they strove to forge. Instead, woven through the feed like a red thread is a series of images from further back in the Cambodian past, a haunting visual refrain of a lost world, often captioned, simply, “Cambodge.” He has tweeted at least four images of Princess Buppha Devi dancing, along with many other Apsara dancers, shadow puppeteers, local government officials, minor royalty, and ordinary men and women, their hair cropped short in the style of colonial Cambodia, their names lost to history. The only criteria for a photograph’s inclusion in his feed, he says, is that it makes him “feel something,” feel as if he is “completely inside it.”

At the end of “The Missing Picture,” the narrator notes that he has not found the picture he was looking for. Instead, he has unearthed something else entirely, unexpected but not unwelcome.

“And so I make this picture,” he concludes. “I look at it. I cherish it. I hold it in my hand like a beloved face. This missing picture I now hand over to you so that it never ceases to seek us out.”

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