Oscar Nomination a ‘Proud’ Day for Cambodia

Rithy Panh was feeling a little under the weather on Friday afternoon. He had not slept much, he explained, drawing on a cigar and keeping the lights off in his office.

Thursday had been a big night for Mr. Panh, and for Cambodia.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh at his office on Friday in the Bophana Audiovisual Center on Phnom Penh's Street 200. Mr. Panh's critically acclaimed film, 'The Missing Picture,' was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category on Thursday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)
Cambodian director Rithy Panh at his office on Friday in the Bophana Audiovisual Center on Phnom Penh’s Street 200. Mr. Panh’s critically acclaimed film, ‘The Missing Picture,’ was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category on Thursday. (Lauren Crothers/The Cambodia Daily)

Around 9 p.m., the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in Los Angeles that his feature film, “The Missing Picture,” was among five finalists for an Oscar in the best foreign-language film category.

As soon as the news was out, phone calls, text messages and Tweets began to pour in from around the world, keeping Mr. Panh awake all night. In addition, a friend had arrived with an obligatory bottle of champagne to toast the occasion.

The Oscar nomination is the first for Mr. Panh, and the first for a Cambodian film.

“The Missing Picture” will now compete against four feature films: “The Broken Circle Breakdown” from Belgium, “The Great Beauty” from Italy, “The Hunt” from Denmark, and “Omar” from Palestine. This year’s Oscar winners will be announced on March 2 during a ceremony in Hollywood, which will be broadcast live on television in more than 225 countries.

In his film, Mr. Panh took the bold approach of using clay figures to reenact scenes of life in Khmer Rouge work camps: Scenes he remembered from his childhood during the Pol Pot years and for which there were, literally, no pictures to show how it was for those who lived through that regime.

The announcement Thursday was one more accolade to add to Mr. Panh’s list of accomplishments over the past few months. In October, he was named the 2013 Asian Filmmaker of the Year at the 18th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, which is considered Asia’s most important film festival.

And in May 2013, “The Mis-sing Picture” obtained the “Un Certain Regard” top award for alternative films at the famed Cannes Film Festival in France.

“Cannes is the festival that has discovered me, let’s say,” Mr. Panh said. After his feature film “Rice People” was presented at Cannes in 1994, five of his films have since been shown there, either in competition or special screenings.

“But the Oscars is a different story,” Mr. Panh said. As his U.S. distribution company Strange Releasing had explained to him when Cambodia selected his film as its entry for the Oscar competition, “The Missing Picture” had to be shown at major film festivals in the U.S. and Canada so that the Academy’s voting members could see it.

Plus, Mr. Panh had to attend some of those festivals, such as the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, a U.S. event known to attract a large number of voting Academy members, Mr. Panh said. “I said to my distributor, ‘It’s 24 hours on a plane—I get sick on planes.’ But he said, ‘You must go.’

“The Oscars, it’s like an electoral campaign. You must meet people and talk with them, which are things I don’t know how to do and don’t do well. So this has been difficult,” Mr. Panh said.

More than 300 countries submitted what they considered their best films for this year’s Oscars, and having his film chosen as one of the five finalists was wonderful news, he said.

“I’m glad. But I’m also glad for Cambodia,” Mr. Panh said. “Right now, we’re going through a rather difficult period. So it’s good news…. I can only make such a film with a team. So this shows that, here, there is true talent.”

“Until March 2, we have to make ourselves known, show who is Cambodia…and what we can do,” he said. “We also have to set aside our disagreements…and enjoy the moment,” Mr. Panh said. “Young people are already doing this on Twitter and Facebook…. They sound so proud, and so proud of their country, which is great.”

“Being nominated, we already won,” Mr. Panh said. “Of course getting the little [Oscar] statue would be nice.”

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