Rithy Panh: Exile and a life of remembering

Film still of Exil (Exile) © Rithy Panh

The work of Rithy Panh is driven by the immense duty to remember – memories of the trauma suffered by an entire country, awhen the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. For his seventh selection in Cannes, the director brings us a new documentary, Exile presented as a Special Screening."

Exile is a meditation on the themes of absence, inner, geographic and political solitude. And the director knows his subject well. He himself went into exile in adolescence to escape the killing machine of the Khmer Rouge. In Paris, he studied filmmaking and devoted his first documentary to the history of his country, Site 2, explorng the traces of his past in a refugee camp in Thailand.

“It was not because I was dazzled by Truffaut or Godard that I came to film, but because of my story. What I went through, what Cambodians went through, must not be transformed into a spectacle.”

Time passes, but Rithy Panh continues to explore the tragic Cambodian genocide. His work is at once educational, poignant and masterly. In 1994, aged 30, he was the first Cambodian to be selected in Competition with Rice People story of a peasant family whose lives play out to the rhythm of the rice-growing year.

One of the films he has presented in Cannes, Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell marked its era Panh spent days talking to Kaing Guek Eav, known by the nickname Duch, the first torturer from cell S-21 to be brought to justice. The result was a powerful documentary, whose impact was compared by some journalists to that of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

In 2013, with those around him urging him to move on to pastures new. Panh made The Missing Picture.  This time, the film explores absence, and the vagueness of memories, characterised by the use of clay animation. It evokes a sense of innocence which only heightens this testament to a childhood destroyed forever. The film garnered the Un Certain Regard Prize in 2013.