Film-maker Rithy Panh is making a documentary he sometimes thinks will never be finished.
He’s been working on it for nearly a decade. It drains and exhausts him, but he will not give it up. He says he cannot, that it is his life’s work.
“I am not a historian,” he said recently, taking a break under a shade tree in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum compound. “But I was there in the Pol Pot time, and I ask myself why I survived, and not my brother or my sister or my mother.”
He needs to find out for the more than 1 million who died, he said. “The people who died do not understand why they died either. It is our duty to understand this.
“I want to know what happened in the heads of the Khmer Rouge who tortured people and killed them.”
Rithy Panh is Cambodia’s best-known film-maker, though his work isn’t seen much here. He splits his time between Cambodia and France, and has produced a string of well-made, internationally acclaimed films that present a stark and often haunting look at modern Cambodia.
The as-yet untitled documentary examines the Khmer Rouge years from the perspectives of victims and perpetrators. More than anything, he says, it explores the nature of memory.
“Some people I’ve been working with for six or seven years,” he said, visiting them several times a year to continue to peel back the layers of memory, trying to get closer to the truth.
“For some people, perceptions change over time. Some didn’t want to examine [what had happened] at all at first. They would just say, ‘I was following orders.’ But when they understand and trust you, they begin to cooperate with you.
“I have only the experience of the survivor. I want to understand the other side.”
Rithy Panh and his crew of young Khmer film-maker s have interviewed “many, many” people over the years, verifying each person’s story when possible via records from the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Some never relax enough to form the necessary bond with the film crew, who ultimately will be asking very difficult and painful questions. But others, over time, do.
“It is hard to work with these people—very hard. But I try to consider them as human beings first. I ask them to remember the little things, the small details of daily life.
“Sometimes I am strong, sometimes I get very upset. Sometimes I talk to myself and say, ‘Finish it now!’ so I can go on to other projects. But this is my work. I think it will take a very long time to finish.”
A central figure in the film is likely to be Hoy, the Tuol Sleng prison guard who first appeared in Rithy Panh’s documentary “Bophana,” the heart-rending story of a husband and wife who were tortured at Tuol Sleng before being killed.
In that film, Hoy talks, albeit reluctantly, about the techniques of torture that were used at Tuol Sleng. He appears eerily unmoved by the nightmarish topics being discussed.
Rithy Panh has continued to interview Hoy for more than seven years, digging deeper in each encounter. “At first they are afraid of me, and when they are afraid, they will say anything,” he said.
Hoy says in “Bophana” that he personally killed five people. In later encounters with the film crew, the figure began to rise. Irked at their persistence, he finally said, “Okay, I killed 2,000 people.”
Asked if that were really true, he snapped, “I can say 4,000 if you like, and we can finish this now!”
“I know that is not true, and that is why we come back and continue to work with him,” Rithy Panh said. He said he doesn’t know if he will ever hear the real number, but that is not the point.
“The number does not interest me, but how. And why. That interests me.” He said he has seen a great change in Hoy, and in other Khmer Rouge cadre he has talked to over the years.
Are they sorry?
A pause. “Yes.”
Hoy told him recently that he has finally begun to feel better, that talking about the horrors of those years is liberating. “He can now admit his guilt,” he said. “We are satisfied the change is real.”
Rithy Panh offers no absolution. “I don’t want him to make this film the place he begins his redemption,” he said. “I tell him it is his duty to talk, his responsibility to tell what happened.”
For Rithy Panh, it is crucial that Cambodians confront those years, and try to understand what happened to their country and how their own actions fit into the bigger picture. “This work only the Cambodian people can do, because it is our story,” he said.
“There is no other choice. There is no other way. You can put it off until tomorrow, but the questions will come back. I want to be a normal person, a normal father. But in order to be that, I must face this first.”
He thinks it is only recently that people have become strong enough to begin this work.
“For a long time, Cambodians tried to bury this,” he said. “Now, when things are going better, the ghosts come. Now they need to know how to talk to their children about it. We cannot lie to them.”
He said it is important to learn from what happened in Cambodia in hopes of heading off other disasters. “We have to face history now if we want to find peace. I want to face it for future generations. I want them to be proud, not ashamed. And if we do not memorialize nearly two million people, we will be ashamed.”
He is not interested in the political ramifications of his work, or the ongoing machinations over the proposed Khmer Rouge tribunal. “The truth is not justice,” he said, and it is the truth that he seeks.
The government, which for years held him at arm’s length, seems more accepting of his work. “I think they understand what I am doing now,” he said.
“They understand that I am not interested in using this material in a politician’s way. I just want our children to become stronger and not be ashamed of their past.”
When “Bophana” was filmed in 1996, nobody wanted to see it, he said. Now it is shown twice daily at the Tuol Sleng museum, and has been broadcast on Cambodian television along with his feature film “Rice People.”
He is pleased at the effect “Bophana” has on Khmer audiences, noting that it stirs such strong emotions that many chatter through it. “I hear parents say to their children, ‘I was there! I walked like that!’” he said with a smile.
He has made other movies that are not yet widely seen here. “One Night After The War” offers a bleak look at the breakdown of social mores after years of fighting; “The Land of Wandering Souls” chronicles the desperate poverty of rural Cambodians.
“There is a time for shooting and a time for screening,” he said. “When they are ready, they will screen it. It is step-by-step.”
While he feels compelled to explore the Khmer Rouge experience, he has no interest in making a documentary on Pol Pot or other top leaders. “All they do is tell lies, and I am not interested in lies,” he said.
Meanwhile, he works on his project, and dreams of the day when he will finish it, and can move on to other films.
“I would really like to make something funny, something real and funny” about life in modern Cambodia, he said. He tells a droll story about one of his assistants, who loaded his wife and three watermelons on his motorbike after a lunch washed down by many beers.
Arriving at his destination, he was asked, “Where’s your wife?” Turns out she had fallen off three kilometers back, and he had never noticed. When he went back to get her, she was trudging along in his wake, lugging the melons.
Rithy Panh would like to capture that kind of resilience, that doggedness, and show how humor leavens the hard lives of poor Cambodians today.
“We laugh every day,” he said. “When we eat, when we move, we laugh. It is hope for us. When life is difficult, we keep something very strong. We have many problems but people keep their sensibility.
“It is good, very good.”