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Metro Magazine (issue 193, 2017): Stranger in One's Own Home

Originally published in Metro Magazine (Issue 193, 2017)

Stranger in One's Own Home: Rithy Panh's Exile

Cambodian expat director Rithy Panh’s latest work is a haunting, dreamlike piece of cinema that masterfully dislodges the audience from any clear sense of time or space. Moreover, writes Glenn Dunks, the non-literal documentary offers sharp commentary on the deplorable conditions faced by the filmmaker’s compatriots under the Khmer Rouge, and is yet another attempt by Panh to make sense of the home from which he was forcibly ejected.


In 1975, Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge regime overthrew Cambodia’s then pro-US Khmer Republic military dictatorship. Until the end of the decade, the Khmer Rouge enacted sweeping reforms, including cultural isolation and the eradication of the class structure through hard labour, torture, and mass executions of anybody who resisted or posed an ideological threat. The Cambodian genocide killed an estimated 2 million people (a quarter of the country’s entire population at the time); as of 2009, 23,745 mass graves have been discovered, with more believed to exist.[1]


When Pol Pot’s soldiers spread across the country, they forced those from the cities into hard-labour camps inspired by the self-sufficient residents of the nation’s remote northern regions, who had no use for money. He sought to revert the country back to an ideological ‘Year Zero’ and, in doing so, one of the first things the Cambodian citizens lost was time. I don’t mean in the sense that they lost physical time that could have been spent gardening, or shopping, or attending one of the country’s many popular cinematheques that would play locally produced melodramas and action films – although, yes, that too was obviously lost. I mean time in a very literal sense, with basic household items like clocks and wristwatches – the latter typically owned by the country’s wealthiest and most socially elite, not coincidentally the Khmer Rouge’s most hated segment of society –seen as symbols of everything the Khmer Rouge opposed. The possession of these items was punishable by death. Cambodians who weren’t assassinated were forced to primitively rely on the sun and the moon to gauge any semblance of time.


It’s appropriate, then, that moons – the beacon in the night sky that represented the Cambodian people’s only short-lived respite from the backbreaking toil forced on them by Pol Pot’s torturous henchmen – appear as a recurring motif throughout Exile (Rithy Panh, 2016). It is the Cambodian filmmaker’s most timeless film, existing not so much in a concrete time and place, but in a state of consciousness in which the audience is set adrift, with no concrete anchor for where they are in the story. It is a documentary that lures viewers into a dreamlike, almost-hallucinogenic state of being in which time is intangible. It is not always clear whether sequences are being told chronologically at any given moment. It is not always clear whether chronology even means anything in the narrative of Exile at all.


This elliptical form of storytelling doesn’t necessarily recount the Cambodian genocide in the way that the director’s other films – such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003) or Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2011) – do. It is a film that is more representative of Panh’s discombobulated mental state than a direct translation of his experiences under Pol Pot. It is an illusory interpretation of what it was like to live under the Khmer Rouge; a fusing of Panh’s own recollections from his confused time as a teenager, but with the insights of a grown man and the evolving understanding gained from decades of regained time.


Many voices, one story

Exile is another alluring, mystical piece of work in an oeuvre concerned with filling in the blanks of the director’s Cambodian homeland. Across its relatively brief seventy-seven-minute running time, Panh recalibrates the way we, his audience, engage with and experience Cambodia, shifting perspectives yet again to offer us a new angle through which to view one of the greatest tragedies of the century. It is, arguably, his most challenging work to date.


Whether they are traditional narrative features, like The Rice People (1994) or The Sea Wall (2008), or the documentaries for which he is more well known, the 53-year-old filmmaker’s works have all dealt with some aspect of twentieth-century Cambodian life. In the extraordinary France Is Our Mother Country (2015), produced for French television’s Docs interdits series, he compiled archival found footage from the early 1900s into a silent and often-satirical exploration of the country’s pre–Khmer Rouge past as a part of France’s colonial Indochina, juxtaposing visuals showing the efforts to denationalise the region with crudely comical propagandist title cards. In The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000), he looked to Cambodia’s efforts to connect to the modern world – both figuratively and literally, through the placement of a fibre-optic network – and the confrontations that must be achieved in order to do so.


Exile is, in many ways, a companion piece to the director’s 2013 feature documentary The Missing Picture. That earlier film brought Panh more global attention, thanks in no small part to its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (the first ever for Cambodia) and, while the newer film generally defies comparison, the two works nonetheless have much in common. Both use somewhat-experimental forms in their attempts to make sense of the Khmer genocide through the lens of autobiography. Both offer viewers forms of nonfiction filmmaking that are as complex as the subjects they seek to tackle, avoiding popular documentary devices like talking heads.

In The Missing Picture, Panh used clay figurines to re-create events that were experienced by millions yet, to this day, remain unseen. In the case of the more abstract Exile, an actor (Sang Nan) is thrust into a single, evolving set – built atop the director’s own rooftop in France – that reflects the changing faces of the director’s existence in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Gramophones and telephones soon disappear, replaced by a bamboo hut; a half-eaten meal on the floor represents the abruptness with which Panh’s family, like so many others, were hauled out of their homes. Panh presents Exile as an essay film, using dialogue that leans heavily on poetry that is both intimately personal and deeply metaphorical, as well as projections, fades and graphic overlays amid the series of meticulously designed and delicately decorated tableaus. This is a film of hushed tones, and cerebral in nature. It’s not a criticism to suggest that Exile could be a cinematic gallery installation.


Exile is built around not just memory, but the objective nature of it. Despite the autobiographical nature of the work, the film’s narration is written by novelist Christophe Bataille. And, despite what one may assume, it is read not by Panh but by actor Randal Douc. It is a neat filmmaking trick that winks at the very idea that the weight of the Khmer genocide could even be condensed down to the experiences of a single person such as Panh.


Furthermore, in blending original thought with quotes from Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Maximilien Robespierre and René Clair, among others, it is as though Panh is attempting to replicate the bombardment of voices during wartime; the anguish of propaganda and political speak and external voices merge ever dangerously with our own internal dialogue. Through this, Panh helps us understand how the Khmer Rouge and the totalitarian regimes that inspired Pol Pot swept into power: we begin to recognise how easily the conflicting political sloganeering of the era can be spoken of in such an ordinary manner. That Exile manages this, even when we know the horrific results of such talk more broadly, is one of Panh’s most damning critiques. These words and images come together in conceptual harmony almost as a work of cinematic poetry, with echoes of Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1956) discernible in the way the camera lingers on the sights that it does – an effect even more powerful when combined with the ambient score of Panh’s regular composer, Marc Marder.


Echoes of change

It says a lot that, over thirty years after its premiere, The Killing Fields (Roland Joffé, 1984) remains the most noteworthy and well-known piece of cinema on the Cambodian genocide. Apart from this film, which won Haing S Ngor a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (David Munro, 1979), written and presented by John Pilger and released soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, explorations of the topic have been remarkably rare.

Panh’s dedication to telling the Cambodian genocide story – and his doing so in a variety of forms and from multiple angles – has therefore meant that he has emerged as a sort of father figure to a de facto new wave for the local film industry.


His bravery can certainly be noted as an influence for other filmmakers telling their own stories about the Khmer Rouge, such as Brother Number One (Annie Goldson & Peter Gilbert, 2011), a New Zealand documentary recounting the heretofore-unknown story of a white man from Whakatane who was swept up in the genocide by accident; Golden Slumbers (Davy Chou, 2011), about the nation’s once-thriving film industry, which was subsequently destroyed; and The Last Reel (Kulikar Sotho, 2014), about the hidden secrets of the genocide revealed by a newly discovered film. Panh’s work has also, thankfully, led to a minor blossoming of films about Cambodia generally, by Cambodians, that evidence a nation that can now be seen as more than its past. The documentary A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam, 2013) explores the damage caused by rapid infrastructure development in the country’s rural farmlands. Rice Field of Dreams (Daron Ker, 2013) follows Cambodia’s first national baseball team. And Diamond Island (Davy Chou, 2016) is a romantic drama about rural youths fleeing to the city in pursuit of the money to be found in the luxury-development boom of the twenty-first century.


Panh’s expertise has since also seen him recruited as a producer on a much bigger project, one that holds the potential to force conversations about the Cambodian genocide into the mainstream public consciousness once again. First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017) is an American production filmed in the Cambodian cities of Phnom Penh and Battambang, employing native actors and spoken in local dialects. Jolie was inspired to make the film by her experiences with activism in the country and her adoption of a Cambodian child,[2] and her adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir of the same name premiered in Cambodia in February, with a subsequent global release on the streaming platform Netflix.


‘People were so badly treated and so dehumanised,’ Panh has said, discussing this large-scale project, for which he is a producer alongside Jolie.


[T]hey had no great desire to recall what happened, to talk about when they had to eat roots and insects to survive. And what could they say? I am alone, I survived but I couldn’t save my parents? I find this long silence normal.[3]


The director escaped Cambodia towards the end of the Khmer Rouge occupation after witnessing his family and friends succumb to starvation and overexhaustion; he crossed the border into Thailand, then emigrated to France. It may be that distance that has allowed him to come back to the subject time and time again: a means of reconnecting to the land he had to abandon as a teenager. A way of reconciling his memories as a young man, barely of age – he was only eleven at the time – when first hauled by the regime out of his home in Phnom Penh.


When placed alongside the catalogue of Panh’s work, Exile makes total sense even if it is far and away a different sort of film and a different form of filmmaking than anything else he has done. He has placed another jigsaw piece into the evolving puzzle of Cambodia’s history – a misshapen piece, but one that finds a rare, refined beauty in its strange shape.


[1]Ewa Tabeau & Jan Zwierzchowski, ‘A Review of Estimation Methods for Victims of the Bosnian War and the Khmer Rouge Regime’, in Taylor B Seybolt, Jay D Aronson & Baruch Fischhoff (eds), Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict, Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2013, p. 238. [2]See Julian Borger, ‘Among the Ghosts of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: On the Set of Angelina Jolie’s New Film’, The Guardian, 11 January 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/11/angelina-jolie-cambodia-first-they-killed-my-father>, accessed 26 May 2017. [3]Rithy Panh, quoted in ibid.

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