When filmmaker Rithy Panh heard that a telecommunications company was hiring rural and rootless Cambodians to lay fiber optic cable across the country, he knew he had to be there.
The contrasts and tensions inherent in the story were irresistible. Twenty-first century technology inching across thousand-year-old rice paddies. Desperately poor people wielding hoes to connect computers at the speed of light.
“It was dramatically very interesting,” said Rithy Panh, who spent the first three months of 1999 filming the clash of cultures. The resulting documentary, “The Land of Wandering Souls,” will be screened Tuesday at the Reyum Gallery, at 6:30 p.m.
A second Rithy Panh film, “Bophana,” will be shown tonight. The story of a girl’s life under the Khmer Rouge is narrated and subtitled in English. On Wednesday, short films by Rithy Panh and a group of younger artists will be screened.
Rithy Panh, who received an education in France after fleeing there in 1979, will be at the gallery before and after the screenings to talk to filmgoers about his work. The gallery, at House 47, Street 178, is across from the National Museum.
He is an internationally accomplished filmmaker, whose feature films “Rice People” and “One Evening After the War” garnered praise at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, held annually in France.
Dividing his time between France and Cambodia, his movies explore Cambodian life at its most basic, presenting an unblinking look at rice farmers, bar girls, ditch diggers, and refugees in a border camp while celebrating the beauties of the Cambodian landscape and character.
The director says making the fiber optic documentary proved more challenging than shooting his feature films.
“It was much more difficult,” he said. “When you’re shooting a documentary, you don’t know what will happen, what people will say.”
At the same time, he said, “this was a much richer experience for me. I have to live with [the subjects], stay with them,” which led to a far deeper understanding of their lives, thoughts and dreams.
He said he was touched by what he found, and proud of his countrymen. “These people, they are very poor. They were nearly crushed by the Khmer Rouge. But they talk, they love, they fight, they have dignity.
“Some people think Cambodians don’t want to talk, that they are afraid to talk. But it is not true. They have reflected about their condition. They understand.”
One poignant exchange in the film, for example, involves an educated man attempting to explain to one of the workers exactly what the fiber optic cable will do.
He compares it to well-loved stories of magic eyes and magic ears, enabling people all over the world to talk to each other and even send photographs instantaneously.
The laborer listens patiently to the glowing talk of telecommunications and the internet and then smiles and lets the guy down easy. “I can’t afford electricity,” he tells him gently. “Sometimes, I can’t even afford kerosene for my lamp.”
Rithy Panh said that during the filming, he and his crews lived and worked closely with their subjects, and found their courage and resilience uplifting.
“I could not live the way they do. It is very hard,” he said. But by spending weeks and months with them, he gains the insight he needs to make a film that is true. “I try to feel what they feel, their happiness as well as their suffering.”
He said it is important for a documentarian to listen to his subjects.
“And first, you must love them, be on the same level with them,” he said.
Rithy Panh said the film’s title refers to the Buddhist belief that the souls of those who die violently are doomed to wander the earth, until the proper ceremonies allow them to enter the cycle of rebirth.
On Wednesday night, the Reyum film festival will show a series of shorter works by the Atelier Varan, a group of younger filmmakers who have studied with Rithy Panh in recent years with the support of the film department at the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture.
The shorter films include: “I am a girl like the others,” by Chheng Savannah; “Thnoat Chroum,” by Roun Narith; “Calmette, Building B,” by Sam Maly; “Ary has left for the city,” by Dy Sethy; “I have gone away from the war,” by Prum Mesar; and Rithy Panh’s “Van Chan” and “The Tan Family,” both subtitled in French.
The Reyum film festival, which is partly funded by a grant from the Kasumisou Foundation, is a low-key affair that organizers say may be extended for several more days if there is enough public interest.
The gallery can seat about 50 people comfortably. Screenings are free.
Organizers said the last major attempt to boost Cambodian films was the unfortunately timed Southeast Asian Biennial Film Festival, which took place in Phnom Penh on the last weekend of March, 1997—the same weekend a grenade explosion killed at least 16 demonstrators across from the National Assembly.