For Rithy Panh’s Sculptor, Hollywood a World Away

Before director Rithy Panh left Cambodia to attend the 86th Academy Awards, where his movie “The Missing Picture” is up for best foreign-language film, Mang Sarith made a finger-sized clay figurine of the director as a young boy wearing a pink, polka-dotted shirt.

Over the past few days, Mr. Panh has posted to his Twitter feed photographs of the figurine flying across the world, touring Los Angeles, posing with fashion mannequins, dining on oranges and shopping for red wine.

Filmmaker Rithy Panh holds up a clay figurine of his younger self in front of the Los Angeles skyline in a photo posted to his Twitter feed on Thursday.
Filmmaker Rithy Panh holds up a clay figurine of his younger self in front of the Los Angeles skyline in a photo posted to his Twitter feed on Thursday.

As Mr. Panh and his miniature likeness mingle with film icons from around the world at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, Mr. Sarith, who created the approximately 500 clay figurines used in “The Missing Picture,” will be watching with his family from Phnom Penh.

“[Mr. Panh] has gone out to challenge the other competitors. I will be very happy for him…if he can bring the award back home,” said Mr. Sarith, 33, a soft-spoken man with strong hands and a thick goatee.

Over the past two decades, as Mr. Panh has become an internationally celebrated documentary filmmaker, Mr. Sarith became a self-taught sculptor, making a living by selling his work at local markets.

Introduced to sculpting by a friend of his father, he taught himself to carve catfish, pigs and other animals out of granite, which was abundant in Pursat province, where his father was serving in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

“I just wanted to have enough rice to eat so I went and learned to make statues…and [my friends] could sell it at the market and give me some of the money,” Mr. Sarith said, sitting with his wife and two daughters at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh.

“Using the small pieces I tried to make fruit, but mostly I made animals,” he said.

Mr. Sarith met Mr. Panh in 2011 when he was hired to work on stage design for a play about a hunter that was being produced in Siem Reap province. Soon after, he was asked to create a replica of Mr. Panh’s childhood home, which would end up in “The Missing Picture.”

“I never expected that it would end up in a big movie like this,” Mr. Sarith said.

Over the course of nine months, beginning in early 2012, Mr. Sarith worked alongside Mr. Panh to create the hundreds of clay figurines that would become the characters in “The Missing Picture,” which tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime through tableaux of clay figures interspersed with archival propaganda footage.

Mr. Sarith sourced most of the clay from his wife’s hometown in Prey Veng province, where he would “ask kids who were playing around to go and dig the earth for me.”

When he began sculpting for “The Missing Picture,” Mr. Sarith said he could create about two figurines a day that “satisfied” Mr. Panh. By the end of the process, he was sculpting five new figures a day, or cutting off limbs to cast figures in new positions.

Mr. Sarith was also tasked with creating everything the statues carried, their surroundings, and the various objects and animals that appear in each scene.

“[Mr. Panh] told his story to me and I would think about what it looked like,” Mr. Sarith said, adding that he often worked into the night recreating Mr. Panh’s memories.

“When he remembered something, he would come to tell me and I would write it down,” he said.

Mr. Sarith said the most shocking scene in the film is one in which a young girl reports her mother to a Khmer Rouge comrade for stealing fruit. The mother is taken away that night and never returns.

“It was brutal,” Mr. Sarith said.

Apart from Mr. Panh’s memories, Mr. Sarith also talked to his own father about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime, during which he lost his father and brother.

“Their emotions moved my hand to carve the statues,” he said.

Regardless of whether “The Missing Picture” comes away with an Academy Award, which will be announced on Sunday night in Los Angeles, Mr. Sarith said the film, which already won an award at the Cannes International Film Festival, has been a success.

“It will be incredible if we win this because since we want to show that this belongs to Cambodia,” Mr. Sarith said. “But if we don’t win, we will still be happy because we reached the last stage.”

And as his figurines become known the world over, Mr. Sarith said he hopes to one day make it out of Cambodia himself.

“I have never been out of the country,” he said. “I really want to go out to see and know about the world, but I cannot afford it. I hope one day it will happen.”

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