Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Awards are nothing new for Cambodian movie director Rithy Panh.
In a career spanning a quarter of a century, the filmmaker has won dozens of international accolades, including two awards at the Cannes International Film Festival.
However, past victories have not dampened Panh’s enthusiasm for the prize he hopes to walk away with on Sunday.
After all, his latest documentary, L’image manquante, or “The Missing Picture”, is the first Cambodian film to be nominated for an Oscar.
“It’s good for this country,” the Khmer Rouge survivor said during a recent interview at his office at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where he helps guide the next generation of Cambodian filmmakers.
Using an unusual, but highly effective combination of Khmer Rouge propaganda footage and hand-carved clay figurines, Panh takes the audience on a heart-wrenching personal journey through the darkest period of the country’s recent history.
More than 500 figurines, sculpted by Sarith Mang over an eight-month period, attempt to show what the archival footage fails to – starting from when the Khmer Rouge began evacuating Cambodia’s capital in April 1975.
Sitting behind his cluttered desk with a Cuban cigar in hand, Panh talked to Al Jazeera’s James Welsh about his motivation for making the documentary, his decision to use clay figurines and his nomination in the 86th Academy Awards.
Al Jazeera: With your documentary nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film, what is your state of mind ahead of the Oscars?
Rithy Panh: “I’m very happy, of course. We have already won something because we are in the top five. So, if we can get one more little cherry on the cake, that would be better.
“The most beautiful thing is that people are very proud about it. Especially young people.
“Still, we have people who have said ‘no’ to this story. Most of them still continue [to believe] that the Khmer Rouge is the Vietnamese product. A monster made by the US and China, or something like that.
“We have to take our own responsibility. We can make [Cambodians] understand who are their parents, what they did, why they were killed.
“We are still here. They can be proud of the memory. They faced it and they are still alive. The Khmer Rouge did not succeed in destroying everybody.
“That’s why I will go to Los Angeles for the Oscars. Because it means: ‘Here, look at me, I’m here. You cannot destroy me. Maybe you kill my family, but you cannot kill me.’ It is important for us to get this message to the Cambodian people, also to the rest of the world.”
AJ: Have you had a chance to view other nominees in the foreign language film category?
RP: “I have watched some of them. Omar was at Cannes in the same section.
“I like this year’s nominees. You have fiction film, you have documentary film, you have Italian film [“The Great Beauty“] – it looks like [Federico] Fellini.
“It’s great that a film like Omar can also go with Missing Picture. It’s great that the temple of the cinema… recognises that.”
When you start a documentary film, you truly don't know what will happen. It's not like a fiction film.
AJ: Why did you make this film and do you feel that you accomplished all that you set out to?
RP: “When you start a documentary film, you truly don’t know what will happen. It’s not like a fiction film. When you make fiction film you have screenplay, actor, actress, casting… You can see a little bit where you want to go.
“When you make a documentary film, sometimes you need to shoot first and see what ideas are good ones.
“I was working for a year and a half with a Khmer Rouge cinematographer, photographer. I just wanted to know how they produced the images.
“It’s very interesting to study the ideology. Even in propaganda films you can find some traces of reality.
“Sometimes when you watch Khmer Rouge footage, you can see very nice people, very smiling. But when you look at the background you can see that people are much more tired.
“If you watch it one time, you know it is a propaganda film. But if you watch again, you can discover that people do not talk together, they are just working on the film.
“I tried to understand why they produce it.”
AJ: Do you feel it was more about the journey than completing the film itself?
“I like life, like you, but it’s my story. If I was from New York, maybe I would make a film about New York, like Woody Allen. But it’s my story.
“Sometimes I am angry with the people in the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal because they do not talk about the intention of the genocide. You cannot understand genocide if you do not work on intention.
“If you talk only about 1.8 [million deaths], it is a lot, but it is nothing. It is nothing because you cannot understand why this happened.
“In the case of crimes against humanity, it’s not just about the killing. It’s about destruction of identity, it’s about destruction of dignity.”
AJ: There’s a moment in the film where you describe Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, as just a man who made a choice. What led you to this understanding?
RP:“They all had a choice, except for maybe young Khmer Rouge – 13 or 12 year olds – they were put immediately through the ideology. People like Duch [Kaing Kek Iev], or like Khieu Samphan, or Nuon Chea, they have choice.
You must do it to bring peace of mind to the next generation.
“It’s not about good and evil. Of course, good and evil are here since humanity started. What makes sense to civilisation is that you fight against the evil.
“You can say: ‘I know nothing, I just obeyed the order.’ No, it is not true.”
AJ: Have you found through your films a way to personally deal with the suffering you endured during the Khmer Rouge regime?
RP: “Yeah. The personal story can become very universal, if you tell it very frankly, very directly. But it costs you a lot of energy and a lot of pain.
“I don’t want to say it was easy to make this film. It was not easy. It was not easy to make film about Duch. It’s not easy to make film about S-21.
“I have a choice not to make these films.
“But it is our story. If you do not write your own story on the page, how can you turn over the page?
“You must do it to bring peace of mind to the next generation.”
AJ: Can you talk about the decision to use the handmade clay figurines that play such a major role in your film?
RP: “It was by accident.
“I never went back to my childhood house, my home. At first we were more than 10 people [living there] and I don’t want to go back alone because I lost a lot of people who lived in this house with me.
because nobody kills you directly – but economic violence kills you little by little.”]
“And I thought one day, maybe I have to see this house – it’s very important.
“I discovered that my house was not my house any more. They changed the colour, there were no more trees. I had in my mind a very exact image of my house. And I asked my assistant [Sarith Mang] to build a model.
“And he asked me if I wanted him to use the wood, and I said: ‘No, go to the river, use the clay.’
“Khmer people, they are very kind, very nice people and they have an artistic feel – not just for factories or clothes.
“I discovered [Mang] sculpting a very expressive figurine. It was in my mind very clearly that only great artists have that… innocence of childhood, very pure.
“I said: ‘Oh, great, I will make another film.’ So I stopped working with the Khmer Rouge cinematographer and said: ‘We will produce figurines.’
“[The figurines] came from the clay from the river. It is like the element of life. After the film they go back to the earth.”
AJ: At one point in the film you appear to draw a parallel between the slave-like conditions of the Khmer Rouge camps and the conditions faced by poor workers in Cambodia today. Do you believe that they are the same?
RP: “Maybe it is not the same, but their condition is not better.
“Of course, you live in a liberal world, but if you do not have money to take care of your family… It’s not the same because nobody kills you directly – but economic violence kills you little by little.
“That’s why it is very important for me to show it. You have to help people who are less fortunate than you.”
Follow James Welsh on Twitter: @HackWelsh