Award-winning Filmmaker Rithy Panh Builds a Home for the Audiovisual Relics of Cambodia’s Pas
The future of a country is not built overnight, as if by magic, says Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh.
People speak of bolstering civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia, he said. “But for this to happen, we first must plant seeds as with rice, and the seeds are the memory [of a nation].”
“People must feel proud and happy to be themselves,” Rithy Panh said. “We can be proud and happy to live if we know who we are, if we know our history. Then we are able to create, to imagine.”
This is why it is as crucial to preserve audiovisual documents as part of the country’s memory as it is to help the poor and the vulnerable, he said. “I agree that we must save our sick children, but we also must save our spirit, our identity, our soul.”
Described on the Cannes Film Festival’s Web site as a familiar face since four of his films have been screened at that prestigious event over the years, Rithy Panh has received awards the world over for his 10 feature films and documentaries. Born in Phnom Penh on April 18, 1964, he fled Cambodia through Thailand in 1979, and moved to France where he studied cinema and still lives part of the year.
But these days, Rithy Panh spends all of his mornings at the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh, where he has had the use of a temporary office since June. There, he works on his decade-long dream: The creation of a national Audiovisual Resource Center.
The center will collect and archive every category of image-and-sound document—from songs, illustrations and photos, to radio and television programs, educational and feature films. Each document will be computerized and indexed in Khmer, French and English, both in Khmer script and Latin alphabet in order to be preserved and easy to access for all people. For tomorrow’s young Cambodians to grasp the 20th century, they must be able to see and hear documents of the time besides reading about it, Rithy Panh said.
There is an urgency about the task, he explained. “This is a country with hardly any images anymore.”
While audiovisual documents from the 1950s and 1960s were scattered or destroyed during the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, the ones produced in the 1980s and 1990s have not been preserved either, he said. Press photographers and newspapers do no systematically—if at all—archive their photos, and radio and television employees tend to erase and reuse tape and computerized files.
The archives must also include audiovisual documents on traditional performances and customs—such as three-day wedding ceremonies or the rice-for-prahok fish paste trade—that may disappear one day, Rithy Panh said.
The first task consists of either creating or seeking documents from the media, organizations and individuals both in the country and abroad.
Even though this must be done at once while people who have lived through the last 60 years still can be contacted, the center and its archival system may take 10 years to be fully established—which is fine, Rithy Panh said. Records must be meticulously archived and indexed with the future in mind, since, as he points out, something that does not particularly interest people today may fascinate Cambodians 50 years from now.
But this raised a crucial issue that Alain Daniel, one of Rithy Panh’s volunteer consultants on the project, stressed last month.
Daniel, who has written a Khmer-to-French dictionary, was then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s private secretary through French aid in the late 1960s. He started organizing the retired King’s documents two years ago.
According to him, one foreign language in addition to Khmer must be selected as the basis for the database. Khmer words in Latin alphabet are sometimes spelled differently in French and English. For example, the Khmer word for pagoda tends to be written “wat” in English and “vat” in French.
Daniel suggested using English as the language of reference—English is the language of communication among Asean countries and is widely studied by young Cambodians. “One must be pragmatic and practical,” he said.
This brought up the matter of financial constraints facing the project. Documents obtained so far—which include the television archives of the French National Audiovisual Institute and the film archives of the production company Gaumont Pathe—are in French, Rithy Panh told Daniel.
Moreover, the three student volunteers assisting coordinator Sabine Trannin and the two Cambodian staff are French, and the US student volunteer expected to help with English translation is only due in June or July.
Rithy Panh works as a volunteer —not even collecting reimbursement for expenses, he said—with the goal of turning the center over to the Cambodian government when it is solidly in place. The project was launched with the support of several French government institutions, but more funding is needed, he said. Daniel left the team with a problem to solve.
In the meantime, the first documents are being processed. This involves not only translating them but also writing a summary of their content, said documentary analyst Chan Lida. For television excerpts, she said, “we need to analyze both the images and the meaning of the information broadcast.” Then documents are coded and records created with titles, dates and times of broadcast, and the authors of the documents such as directors and hosts, she said.
Those first archived documents enable Rithy Panh to show potential donors how researchers will access the information.
When German Ambassador Pius Fischer came to the center’s office in January, he brought up on the computer a 1963 French television travelogue on Cambodia featuring then-Prince Sihanouk.
As the database is developing, material has begun to arrive. The Ministry of Information last month authorized the center to archive the television program “Rendez-vous,” which was broadcast in French and Khmer from 1994 to 2004 on TVK in Cambodia. The program, which featured news and features, was filmed in Cambodia.
The center will also eventually receive about 50 hours of short television segments of Khmer Rouge propaganda and features from the 1960s and 1980s. Left to rot and contaminated with mushrooms, the film fragments were found in Phnom Penh in the early 1990s and sent to France where repairs were delayed due to a lack of funds, Rithy Panh said. They were recently sent to the National Audiovisual Institute in Paris for repairs. Although the segments will probably turn out to only be public relations-type features, he said, “symbolically it’s important for them to return to Cambodia.”
The permanent home of the center, scheduled to open at the end of the year, is a three-story building on Street 200 behind the French Cultural Center.
Restoration plans were done as a class project by architecture students at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Rithy Panh said. They designed the building for airflow to cool the facility, so that costly air conditioning will not be needed. The goal is that, even with limited resources, the Cambodian government will be able to operate the center in the future, he said.
The center will consist of a public area with exhibition space on the ground floor; computer stations for people to view the documents on the second level; and classrooms on the third level since the center will offer advanced training in audiovisual skills, said Rithy Panh.
Restoration work has been scheduled so that work can progress whenever funds come in without hampering the project, said Jean-Paul Ober of SBTP, the company in charge of construction.
For Rithy Panh, all this means that his mornings are consumed by a multitude of details—ranging from discussions on the number of electrical outlets at the future center and the selection of key words for the archive’s database, to travel arrangements for volunteers and authorization requests.
In the afternoon, he goes back to being a filmmaker, which also concerns memory, as he illustrates people’s lives.
Portraying ordinary Cambodians through images of a deliberate simplicity that stresses their dignity, he lets them speak of their harsh lives, pain and fears on the screen.
In his first feature film, “The Rice people” in 1994, he showed the fragility of farmers’ existence as a minor injury shatters a family’s life.
His documentary “The Land of the Wandering Souls” in 2000 followed a man with an artificial leg who dug ditches to lay down a fiber-optic cable from dusk to dawn, while his wife resorted to collecting red ants to provide protein in their soup at dinner.
In between films, Rithy Panh watches how people live and work, listening to them discuss their thoughts and feelings.
“It’s by being with people that one learns things,” he said.
It’s easy to come up with answers without ever asking questions, he adds. But knowing which questions to ask about poverty and injustice, love or happiness, is another matter. “I try not to make up answers—it’s much more interesting to let people come up with their own responses.”
He builds friendships in the process, such as with the comedian Loto, who appeared in his 2005 documentary “The Burnt Theater,” in which artists talk of their hard lives and the arts in the crumbling shell of the Bassac Theater. A famous Cambodian theater and film actor of the 1960s, Loto was reduced to comedy sketches—getting kicked and rolling off stage—in the 1990s. Now impoverished, the 74-year-old man was sick in bed and barely conscious when Rithy Panh visited him at his Dangkao district home in January.
Through meeting with people, film topics emerge, Rithy Panh said.
“One must let a film come, not force it at all costs or feel an obligation to make it,” he said. “One must have fundamental things to say.”
Cambodia is not the only poor country in the world, said Rithy Panh.
“We are like everyone else. Where we are not like everyone else is that it’s a country that has endured atrocities such as war and the Khmer Rouge—and this leaves scars,” he said. “The essential problem for us is how to surmount traumatism.”
In his 2003 documentary “S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” in which former prison guards described daily routine at the extermination prison, one of the rare surviving victims of Tuol Sleng breaks down in tears at the sight of the building.
“For me,” Rithy Panh said, “having the Khmer Rouge on trial is important. It’s important for us to know who committed the crimes, who are the victims and who are the butchers.”
“If we try to avoid questions, the next generation will take on the guilt, will suffer again,” he said. “We cannot let those young people feel guilty because we did not do what was needed to answer questions today.”
“Rendering justice in a case of genocide, that’s complicated. One can never be fully satisfied. But we must accept, we must make an effort,” in order to eventually turn the page, he said. “It’s a matter of honesty, of sincerity toward the generations to come.”
Then remains the task of restoring the country’s identity, including its memory and culture in all its forms —from cuisine and clothing to books, theater, music and films, Rithy Panh said.
“The only reason why I’m always optimistic is that I’m thinking a great deal about the next generations. I’m optimistic about them. Otherwise I don’t see why I would put so much energy doing things