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A Better Understanding of His Country

Cambodia's Rithy Panh explores a land of survivors via film.


Rithy Panh wants to understand how a man could pull out another man's fingernails, or apply an electric shock to his genitals, or dunk him in a vat of water until his lungs are bursting.

All this happened at the S-21 interrogation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. More than 16,000 inmates of S-21 were later slaughtered at a "killing field" south of the city.

Panh knows a man who did such things. For the past seven years, he has visited him three to four times a year with a documentary film crew, each time asking, "Why?" He says he will not quit until he understands, though he sometimes doubts that day will never come.

"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."

Panh, a Khmer Rouge survivor, has produced a string of internationally acclaimed films about Cambodia. He will attend a retrospective of five of his films screening Friday to Sunday in Claremont at Scripps and Pomona colleges. The events are co-sponsored by the Pacific Basin Institute, Scripps Humanities Institute and Pomona Media Studies.

It will be the third U.S. visit for the director, who splits his time between Cambodia and France. "I always like to talk to students," he said. "They need to know what has happened in the world."

What happened in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime--and what is happening today--has obsessed Panh since he escaped the killing fields in 1979 for sanctuary in France.

"I am not a historian," he said. "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" or the estimated 1.7 million who died of hunger, disease or overwork, or were executed between 1975 and 1979.

Films to be shown are "The Land of Wandering Souls" (1999), "One Evening After the War" (1997), "Bophana, A Cambodian Tragedy" (1996), "The Rice People" (1994) and "Site 2" (1985).

The Cambodian film industry boomed in the 1960s, when King Norodom Sihanouk directed a long string of engaging but forgettable melodramas starring himself, his wife, his friends and the nation's military hardware. The industry was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, when an estimated 90% of the country's performing artists were executed as exemplars of corrupt Western influence.

In the past two years, a fledgling, revived industry has churned out saccharine karaoke videos and at least two feature films: "Child of the Giant Snake" and "Commander Damden," both entertaining but rudimentary fantasy-adventures.

Panh's exponentially more sophisticated work has not been seen much in Cambodia, although that is beginning to change. The documentary "Bophana" is the wrenching story of a couple imprisoned at the S-21 interrogation center, where they were tortured and eventually killed.

The film includes rare Khmer Rouge propaganda footage showing thousands of black-clad Cambodians performing essentially slave labor as part of the regime's attempt to create an agrarian utopia. The radical Maoists left extensive records of their activities--just like the Nazis.

Although the government held Panh at arm's length for years, officials this year decided to allow "Bophana" to be shown twice daily at Tuol Sleng, now a genocide museum and one of Phnom Penh's top tourist attractions.

"I think they understand what I am doing now," Panh said. "They understand that I am not interested in using this material in a political way. I just want our children to become stronger and not be ashamed of their past."

While making his other movies, Panh has labored for the past decade on the as-yet-untitled documentary that examines the Khmer Rouge years from the perspectives of victims and perpetrators. More than anything, he says, it explores the nature of memory.

"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....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" that illuminate the truth.

For 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.

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