portraits
Portrait
Cinema

Rithy Panh

I see myself as a link in a chain: I have to remember the past to talk about the future, using old images to resonate with what we’re living through today.

A film-maker known worldwide for his work on Cambodia, Rithy Panh is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge work camps who found refuge in cinema. Through his works of fiction, his documentaries, and his books, he endeavours to pass on the history of his home country.

Published on 27/07/2021

2 min

Born in 1964 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Rithy Panh was only ten years old when the Khmer Rouge regime took over his hometown in 1975. He witnessed the deportation of its population to work camps. A survivor of the regime’s repression, he saved himself by joining the Mairut camp in Thailand. But those four years of massacres during which he lost his family will always haunt Rithy Panh. He decided to move to France at 17 years old to give himself the time to pull himself together, and began carpentry studies. After shunning his origins, he quickly turned towards cinema to rewrite his history.

The Cambodian-French film-maker began his career as a director in 1989 with his first documentary, Site 2, Aux abords des frontières (Site 2: Around Borders), in which he portrayed the living conditions in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. Thanks to the success of this first attempt, he continued his work, alternating between documentary and fiction. By capturing Cambodia’s dark past, he established himself in France as a spokesperson for the genocide.

For over 30 years, Rithy Panh has endeavoured to pass on the horrors endured by scrutinising the Khmer Rouge dictatorship in particular. As attested by his latest documentary, Irradiés (Irradiated, 2020), which draws on narratives of “hibakusha” (the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings) to fight against forgetting, the director infuses his work with memory dedicated to trauma and the grieving process. Whether he is highlighting the disputes between the Cambodian government and the UN in S21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, 2002), speaking about French colonisation in Indochina in La France est notre patrie (France Is Our Mother Country, 2015), illustrating the solitude of exiles in Exil (Exile, 2016), or undertaking an intimate spiritual quest in Les Tombeaux sans noms (Graves Without A Name, 2018), Rithy Panh uses his memories as a survivor as foundations for poignant narratives.

Rejecting labels, the politically engaged director also stands out for his talent as a writer. Putting pen to paper with Christophe Bataille for L’Élimination (The Elimination) in 2012 and La paix avec les morts (Peace with the Dead) in 2020, the author has earned praise from the literary public. An accomplished artist, Rithy Panh has pursued his awareness-raising mission by founding the Centre Bophana in Phnom Penh. Since 2006, this audiovisual institution has allowed Cambodian audiences to peruse videos, photographs, and sound documents collected about the country.

Rithy Panh gained international recognition with his film Les Gens de la rizière (Rice People) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994. Made entirely in the Khmer language, this feature-length film made history in his country as the first Cambodian film to be showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. While seven of his films were in the official selection, the director won the Prix du Certain Regard in 2013 with Limage manquante (The Missing Picture). It was also the first Cambodian film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film. A true model for his country, Rithy Panh was invited to chair the Caméra d'Or jury for the Cannes Film Festival in 2019.

Beyond his close relationship with la Croisette, the director has touched many generations with his charity work. In 2016, his film Limage manquante (The Missing Picture, 2013) was even screened for secondary school pupils and apprentices as part of educational work to raise awareness about film culture.

Asia Lounge : Conversation avec Rithy Panh
Asia Lounge : Conversation avec Rithy Panh
  • 1964

    1964

    Rithy Panh is born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  • 1980

    1980

    Rithy Panh comes to France as a refugee after the Khmer Rouge regime.

  • 1994

    1994

    Les Gens de la rizière (Rice People), his first fiction film, is screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the first time a Cambodian film has reached the competition.

  • 2013

    2013

    Rithy Panh creates L’image manquante (The Missing Picture) and wins the Prix du Certain Regard, the Prix d’Italia, as well as the Prix France Musique - Sacem de la Musique de film, and receives an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film.

  • 2019

    2019

    Rithy Panh chairs the Caméra d'Or jury for the Cannes Film Festival.

  • 2020

    2020

    Rithy Panh continues his work on grief with the documentary Irradiés (Irradiated).

The Institut français and the artist

Rithy Panh was laureate of the Villa Kujoyama in 2019, an establishment of the cultural cooperation network of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, under the Institut français of Japan and which benefits from the patronage of the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, and the support from the Institut français.

Learn more about the Villa Kujoyama

 

L'institut français, LAB