Rithy Panh was born in the capital city of Phnom Penh in 1964. His father was a civil servant who worked for the Ministry of Education. Perhaps it was due to their affiliation with the government that his family was among those targeted for “re-education” when the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh in 1975. As a young boy in the camps, he witnessed his family perish one by one due to starvation or exhaustion. He found his chance to escape during the Vietnamese invasion in 1980 when the Khmer Rouge lost control of the country. He lived at a refugee camp in Thailand for a year before being resettled in France in 1980.
In France, he refused to return to his home country for ten years, and had even stopped speaking his mother tongue. Attempting to live a ‘normal’ life, he went to a vocational school to study carpentry. While at school, he was handed a video camera during a social event, prompting him to becom einterested in filmmaking. He was accepted into the highly-competitive Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) in Paris. His first film, “Site 2,” brought him back to the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. Site 2 became a formative film from him, and from then on he decided to bear testimony to the Cambodian people through the use of documentary practices that “built on the gathering of witnesses,” as noted by Sylvie Blum-Reid in her essay about him.[*]
Through the years, his many critically-acclaimed films dealt with this drive to confront the ghosts of Cambodia’s past and perhaps initiate the healing of collective memory. In his 2012 memoir, Panh says that “Memory must remain a reference point… What I’m looking for is comprehension. I want to understand the nature of the crime, not to establish a cult of memory.” In his 2013 documentary “The Missing Picture,” he attempts to do just that, by recollecting his own childhood and his family as they were being swept into the Khmer Rouge’s regime of terror. “The Missing Picture” will be screening at the Henry Art Gallery on Thursday 7 December, 6:30-8:30 pm. Pre-register at www.henryart.org.
Rithy Panh also produced “First They Killed My Father,” directed by Angelina Jolie and based on the memoir of Cambodian-American writer and activist, Loung Ung. While Ung, like Rithy Panh, also longs for a peaceful Cambodia, this doesn’t mean simply forgetting and moving on. She says that “A peaceful Cambodia is a Cambodia where people can learn from their own history. Where people are connected to each other and people can be heard and seen and have the opportunities to grow their life and their country and their talents and skills.” “First They Killed My Father” will be screening at Mt. Baker Village Apartments on Wednesday 6 December, 3:30-6:30pm. Pre-register with Sameth Mell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the week, there will also be a video installation at the Research Commons lobby at the Allen Library. It will utilize archival materials from journalist Elizabeth Becker’s visit to Democratic Kampuchea. Becker was one of the last group of Western journalists to be allowed to visit Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge occupation, and the photographs she took are invaluable historical records that she graciously donated to the UW Library System.
We hope that you are able to join us for these film screenings and discussions with Rithy Panh. All events are free and open to the public.
[*] Blum-Reid, Sylvie E. (2003) “Khmer memories or filming with Cambodia”, in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 4: 1, 126 — 138