Rithy Panh: “We now live in very dangerous times.”

Here to receive the Honorary Award from the 29th SGIFF, the French-Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh is arguably one of the most celebrated documentarian alive today and the most well-known Cambodian filmmaker. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed his family, Panh was a refugee in Thailand before arriving in Paris in 1980, where he stayed and eventually studied film at La Fémis, the French National Film School.

His 1994 drama Rice People competed at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and was the first Cambodian film submitted for an Oscar. A long string of serious documentaries followed as Panh continued his efforts to document both Cambodia's past as well as its future - with milestone works such as S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine which won the Prix François Chalais for dedication to journalistic values at Cannes in 2003, and The Missing Picture which won the Un Certain Regard Prize in 2013, also at Cannes.

Besides directing, Panh also works tirelessly in the development of the Cambodian film industry, co-founding the Bophana Center in 2006 which held both training and screening programmes, as well as producing Angelina Jolie's 2017 drama, First They Killed My Father.

Sitting down for a quick phone chat with SINdie, Panh shares more about his journey and some observations on cinema today.

You were part of the SGIFF Jury in 2001. How does it feel to return 17 years later to receive the Honorary Award?

It feels great! I only have the festival to thank. I have been following the programme and the people for a while now, and the festival has really done a very good job for the last 10 years. We need festivals like SGIFF in Southeast Asia; and maybe Singapore can take the lead in this.

With the conditions of filmmaking having changed so much over the decades, what do you see is the state of filmmaking in Cambodia currently?

I have spent the last decade running the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center which works like a cinematheque and an archive, because you cannot train people without a place where they can watch films, discuss them, and work through the archives. Now, we have a lot more filmmakers and we welcome a lot of companies to shoot here. 

Our policy is to build more co-production, and this is because we cannot think of the market in terms of just Cambodia—we have to think of Southeast Asia or Europe!ed professionals who can advise in a greater capacity. 

We need to see how we can change the policy of censorship, and we have to think about how to support the filmmakers. If we don’t do that, they will completely disappear. Nowadays, there are so many channels like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube; with so many different options, we need to be able to present in all these digital formats as well.

I started with the old school way of filmmaking, and what is good about it is in how you need to take the time to learn film: how you point your camera, what is the content, etc. While the digital platforms open many more doors and opportunities for young filmmakers, from my point of view, sometimes they go too fast.

We need to think about the quality and not just the quantity too; even if you have great quantities, it is no good if you have no quality. And when you talk about quality, you also have to talk about the public policies concerning culture: how to support culture, how to let the new generation feel more free to speak up, and how to show their feelings etc.

Despite the heavy subject matter and deep history, your films have never really been subjected to a lot of censorship. What is the current relationship like between the Cambodian government with the arts?

We should bear in mind that while cinema and art in general is not something you create in the political world, there is also an element of cultural diplomacy that exists—when your art or your culture travels to a certain place, you get to be visible in a very good way. In many Asian countries, you have a lot of legislation for filmmakers, and I am very troubled by this way of thinking, when we think in terms of economy and market performance, but not in terms of culture. 

This is a very sad reality because even though our territory is so big, and we have so much riches here in Southeast Asia, we don’t use them well.

While we always think about economic development and how it can benefit a country, investing in culture also helps to build a nation; Singapore has invested a lot in the future and now Singapore is enjoying the fruits of its investment. There is opera, good festivals, and art schools, all of which contributes to the identity of Singapore. What is the identity of Singapore 50 years ago? It did not exist! Now with this investment in culture, it does.

As someone who has been nurturing the development of a new generation of Cambodian filmmakers, what kind of stories do you see them telling? What do they want to tell?

Some of them want to tell stories of what hope means for them, and some wants to tell what the future holds, and how they can play a role; some talk about the tragedies of the past.  It’s good. I didn’t force them or push them to make films about the tragedies we have come through—they feel it is necessary to do so themselves and I think it is lovely. 

Most of them talk about what is their future now, and it is very good for us to support and listen to them on what they need in order to develop the country.

For me, the most important thing is to not for culture to disappear, because there is a great risk of losing the art to the entertainment. Art needs to go beyond entertainment to show our identity and our feelings, and so the more the government supports youths to create—to film, to dance, to mount an exhibition—the stronger we are.

On this note, where are these young filmmakers learning film and getting their visual language?

From film festivals such as SGIFF!

It’s the role of film festivals to bring in cinema both classic and new, such as works by masters like Ozu or Mizoguchi, or even Lino Brocka, whose films we don’t see much of anymore. As the big theatres tend to not release or screen the classics and/or good independent films, but go for more commercial titles, it is thus the duty of festivals to build that awareness or create a retrospective. We cannot count on television or theatres to release the works of masters.

There are too many films now for me; often, there is no substance, and no reflection. While this digital age gives us a lot of possibilities to make films cheaper, we must not confuse cheap productions with good productions.

Having screened your works in so many different countries at so many different festivals, were there any times when an audience’s reaction surprised or shocked you in some ways?

There are, but even then I am not really surprised. 

The world today is going a little crazy, no? When you look at what is happening in Europe, in the US, in Brazil, or even what is happening in Asia right now… what I can say is that the force of totalitarianism may come back.

I think it is our duty as artists to protest and show that this is not good. When I show my films in Brazil, people like them because they remind them of what happened 20 years ago. They now have a far right, fascist president. Sometimes when you watch a film about a country and its history, you think about your own country and history too. This is the universal aspect of art. Art ultimately belongs to humans.

The tone in your works have always been a bit mournful, introspective, looking back at the development of Cambodia. Do you foresee a day you will be more hopeful in your works?

Some day, yes. I feel a little bit more in peace in my mind now, but I am also upset because we now live in very dangerous times.

For example, I cannot be happy when in the Philippines a President will use certain kind of words to talk about his people. Or in the US. What happens in the States, will affect everybody elsewhere. When Trump talked about fake news in the US, Duterte talked about fake news in the Philippines. When Trump took away the press card from Jim Acosta, Duterte did the same thing in the Philippines. This is not the way to run the world. To me, a world is about sharing things, sharing the riches. The global world should not be just for the rich people, dominating the poor people. This discussion is one that we must all participate in. 

Rithy Panh receiving the Honorary Award at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival

Interview by Alfonse Chiu
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