November 2019, arsenal cinema

Working to Remember – The Films of Rithy Panh

[Translate to english:] LES TOMBEAUX SANS NOMS, 2018

The oeuvre of Rithy Panh, who was born in Phnom Penh in 1964 and has lived in France for the last 40 years, revolves round one central theme: remembering the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which he himself experienced as an adolescent and in which he lost nearly his entire family. The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and deported the entire population of Phnom Penh to the country, leaving behind 1.7 million dead and a deeply traumatized country. They didn’t just split the population into “new” people (city dwellers and the educated) and “old” ones (farmers who lived traditionally), they also set up a totalitarian system that destroyed all family bonds as well as any sort of cultural life, religion, and education. Above all, they aimed to extinguish individuality, free thought, and collective memory. The struggle against staying silent and forgetting and the endeavor to find diverse forms of remembrance are at the heart of Rithy Panh’s work, which always wrestles with the possibilities of representing the unrepresentable in the process. Rithy Panh’s cinematic work on grief and remembrance takes a wide range of different forms. His features are characterized by a restrained, flowing directorial style and a profound interest in the psychology of their characters. In his documentaries, he expands the breadth of his cinematic language again and again, finding surprising and poetic images and forms and becoming ever more free and personal. His films are as reflective as they are sensitive and often resemble archeological excavations: remembering the dead who have no graves, giving people the chance to speak again, to investigate, to understand, and to explain. His commitment to this end extends beyond his own film work. At the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, which he co-founded in 2006, audiovisual testimonies on Cambodia are collected and made accessible to the population, while young filmmakers are also able to receive training. We are dedicating a ten-film homage to the multi award-winning director.

LES TOMBEAUX SANS NOMS (Graves Without a Name, Cambodia/France 2018, 1.11., with an introduction by James Burnet & 17.11.) Rithy Panh’s most recent exploration of the history of Cambodia is linked a spiritual and deeply personal search for the dead members of his family, to whom he had to bid farewell without any sort of funeral. What can grief look like, how can the souls of the dead find peace when they remain without graves and are thus damned to wander the earth without direction? By way of photos, rituals, and wooden figures, connections are made and contact is established with the world of the dead. Rithy Panh’s search is akin to burial work: bones, teeth, and textiles can be found in the earth, as can the immaterial remains of the terror regime in the stories of the survivors – fear and mistrust that do not fade and are passed on to children and grandchildren. For these wandering souls also represent an entire country – a film as a deeply felt act of grieving.

UN BARRAGE CONTRE LE PACIFIQUE (The Sea Wall, France 2008, 2.11.) is an elegiac literary adaptation, based on the novel of the same name by Marguerite Duras set in French Indochina in the 30s. A feeling of numbness suffuses the household of a widow (Isabelle Huppert) and her two nearly adult children, who would like to break out of the harmony of life in the colony. At the same time, the mother is fighting her own battle against the corruption of the French colonial administration. Her rice paddies are regularly flooded with seawater and thus unusable. She pours all her energy into a seemingly hopeless project: to build a dam against the ocean. At the same time, the discontentment of the local population turns to violence directed against the colonial rulers. In opulent images, Panh shows the beauty of the landscape and the lush rice paddies, before which both the brutality of the situation as well as the yearnings of the characters emerge all the more clearly.

EXIL (Cambodia/France 2016, 4. & 23.11.) A reduced setting – a young man alone in a wooden hut, where tableaus involving a wide range of objects appear and disappear again – serves as the backdrop for this cinematic meditation about the state of exile and the solitude and isolation that go with it, to say nothing of the lasting pain. A condensed, poetic commentary discusses the effects of the Khmer Rouge on an adolescent and the party’s dangerous ideology. EXIL is an attempt to grasp the past in order to live in the present, a process of self-discovery by way of the imaginary.

L’IMAGE MANQUANTE (The Missing Picture, Cambodia/France 2013, 5. & 21.11.) For the first time, Rithy Panh returns to his own story of life under the Khmer Rouge, in which part of his family died of hunger and exhaustion. With the help of painted clay figures, he reenacts scenes from his memory for which he has no images – life in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge came to power, the blossoming Cambodian pop and film culture, later the black uniform clothing and the tiniest forms of resistance. Contrasted with documentary film material and a dense, shimming soundtrack, he recounts both death and survival, as well as what cinema is capable of.

SITE 2 (France 1989, 6.11.) Rithy Panh’s first film was made in a Thai refugee camp just the other side of the Cambodian border. It centers on the story of Yim Om, who lives with her family in the camp, having fled from war and poverty in Cambodia, and shows the camera their huts, their few possessions, and the food rations handed out by the UN. Just like her, the film doesn’t leave the camp, giving an account of a life marked by forced inactivity and increasing hopelessness, by worries about children growing up at a remove from their own culture and who only know about cultivating rice from their parents’ stories.

UN SOIR APRÈS LA GUERRE (One Evening After the War, Cambodia/France/Switzerland /Belgium 1998, 12.11.) Rithy Panh’s second feature is set in a Phnom Penh still nursing the injuries of war at the start of the 90s, where a fragile peace has returned. After coming back from fighting, 28-year-old soldier Savannah tries to re-enter civilian life. He falls in love with a young prostitute called Srey Poeuv, who is forced to realize with resignation that nothing belongs to her, “not even love”. How can personal happiness and even a small degree of normality be found in a devastated country marked by violence, how can the wounds of the past be shaken off? Suffused with a melancholy mood, Rithy Panh tells the story of a desperate attempt to find liberation. “For the Cambodians, fear remains a huge monster. My film is supposed to be a film about resisting this monster.”

(S 21 – The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Cambodia/France 2002, 13.11., with an introduction by Michael Kienzl) Under the name “S 21”, a former school in Phnom Penh became one of the Khmer Rouge’s most feared internment and torture camps. Anyone delivered there was regarded as intrinsically guilty. In forced confession sessions, the victims had to admit their “guilt” before being murdered. Rithy Panh brings together two of the few survivors with former guards. Together, they reconstruct the crimes and make the mechanisms of exclusion visible that were employed to dehumanize the victims. By reenacting the gestures and movements that used to form the perpetrators’ everyday work, they become aware of their role in the machinery of murder. “In my memory work, the gesture holds a central position. The formative scene in which the executioner carries out the gesture he used to perform on prisoners is emblematic in this sense. Critics have claimed he’s just acting out the movements, but it’s not about staging here: these are simply gestures that mechanically surface in inexplicable fashion.” (Rithy Panh)

LA TERRE DES ÂMES ERRANTES (The Land of the Wandering Souls, Cambodia/France 2000, 14.11.) In 1999, works are being carried out across the whole of Cambodia, all the way from the Thai border to the Vietnamese one, to lay the first fiber optic cables in Southeast Asia. Daily laborers – farmers without land, former soldiers, impoverished families – find the opportunity to earn some money here, even if this modern telecommunication work carried out with the simplest of tools remains hugely precarious and is barely able to alleviate the oft-crushing poverty of the people doing it. Cambodia’s recent history is also being literally dug up at the same time, as bones and grenades are stumbled upon during the excavations and the workers reflect upon their own fears and memories.

LES ARTISTES DU THÉÂTRE BRÛLÉ (The Burnt Theater, Cambodia/France 2005, 15.11.) The National Theater of Phnom Penh miraculously survived the Khmer Rouge’s devastating reign of terror and was only destroyed by a fire in 1994. Now it stands like an open wound in the city, while construction is carried out around it and Phnom Penh is transformed into a modern city. In a blend of fiction and reality, Rithy Panh shows the attempts made by several actors to keep a belief in art going and forge links to lost traditions.

DUCH, LE MAÎTRE DES FORGES DE L’ENFER (Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell,Cambodia/France 2011, 16.11.) Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, was head of the S 21 prison between 1976 and 1979 and as such responsible for around 15,000 deaths. In 2009, he was one of the first of the Khmer Rouge leadership made to answer for his crimes before an international court. In a long conversation filmed in a simple prison cell, Duch makes an effort to create an image of himself as an intellectual who merely wanted to serve the party line. A film with and about words: while Duch hides behind hackneyed phrases, Panh confronts him with the murderous slogans of the Khmer Rouge. “Duch evades my questions. Throws me small scraps of truth. I never try to drive him into a corner. But he inevitably lets the cat out of the bag. Thanks to cinema, the truth come to light: the cut set against the lie.” (Rithy Panh) (al)

An event with the friendly support of the Institut français.

arsenal cinema: Showcasing Leos Carax

08:00 pm Cinema 1

Les amants du Pont-Neuf

*Les amants du Pont-Neuf France 1991
With Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant 35 mm OV/GeS 126 min

Introduction (in German language): Jérôme d’Estais (Author of „La petite géographie réinventée de Leos Carax“)