Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has devoted his life and
career to the documentation and investigation of the Khmer Rouge — not just the
mass killings themselves but also the ideological fervor that made them
possible, the passivity of other nations, and the aftermath of the regime’s
collapse. Whether confronting one of Pol Pot’s own architects of terror,
uncovering the individual stories of murdered Cambodians, or travelling with a
family of refugees now working for pennies a day as laborers, Panh has always
been guided by a commitment to the humanity and individual personalities of his
subjects – the very individuality that Pol Pot and his henchmen tried so
desperately to erase.
All of Panh’s films are personal, but “The Missing Picture,” which was nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar and arrives in theaters for a limited release March 19, is also
autobiographical. Working with both
archival footage and scenes shot with clay models, the 46-year-old director
shares his memories of an idyllic childhood in Pnom Penh, the shock of his
family’s forced move to the countryside when he was just 13 years old, and the
four years he spent as a laborer in Pol Pot’s infamous “rehabilitation
camps.” Panh spoke with us from his offices
in Pnom Penh about the making of the film, the solutions he found, and the
pieces of his past that are forever missing.
Sheerly Avni: How did you arrive at the idea of using clay to tell your
Rithy Panh: It started out as a very personal attempt to give shape to
my own memories. We were all sent away from my house in 1975. And when I went
back to look for my house, it of course no longer existed. Today, it’s a
karaoke parlor. Really just for my just for my own benefit, and I asked a guy
from my crew to make a rough model for me. I had no idea he was a
sculptor. I just asked him to make me a
simple rough model out of wood, but he immediately said no no, he wanted to use
And you know, it
worked out well, because clay is also earth.
You make it with water, you dry it with the sun – not too little, not
too much — you work with your hands, and then little by little, you see
something form. I guess this is how cinema works, you follow one idea to
another, getting closer and closer to finding the story you want to tell.
And also, these aren’t just figurines, they are something
else, they have a soul.
Yes, if you see a sculpture of Buddha in museum in New York,
you might think of it as a beautiful object, or a relic – of the 12th century,
the 13th century, whatever, your interest. But for us, these statues have
souls. We don’t just pray to statues, we talk to them, we cry to them.
Was it challenging to work in such a different medium, this
form of 3D static animation?
Oh yes, especially at first.
As a sculptor, he is very talented, but he’s also young, he wasn’t born
yet during that period. So I would sit next to him while he carved, describing
what I could remember — what people wore, what they were doing, how they lost
weight… It was very important that their faces be expressive, and emotional. I
wanted people to see their humanity.
Why was that so important to you?
I always try to focus on the individual, on what makes us
human. Part of the Khmer Rouge project was not only to destroy individual
people, but to destroy the very notion of the individual.
I want to simply rebuild the stories of people – it’s part
of my fight against the Khmer Rouge agenda.
In a recent memoir, you speak critically of the concept of
“banality of evil” – not necessarily Arendt’s association but the way it has
been used. And suggest an alternative section called the banality of good.
I have the impression that people often don’t understand
what Arendt is saying. The expression by itself is seductive – it automatically
exonerates us. Evil has always been
there, it’s always a part of us, evil is no big surprise. But what about the
people who gave freely, who stood up for human dignity? Even in the most extreme and terrible
situations, these acts of dignity existed. And for me that is the banality of
There are several powerful moments in The Missing Picture in
which you see individual characters standing up for human dignity, and for each
other. And not just characters – your
It’s important for us survivors to remember we didn’t
survive because we were stronger, or braver, or better. We survived because
there were other people who with simple gestures — of love, of sacrifice, of
solidarity. And sometimes, they protected us with their lives.