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`Straight cut to reality'

MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER

Cambodian director Rithy Panh stresses the importance of the documentary as a platform for discussion and discovery.


We become blind and do not want to see the suffering. If we want the world to become a better place, we have to make documentaries that people would like to watch. An interesting documentary provides a platform where people can come together and watch and discuss what they see.

Photo: Satish H

BUILDING BLOCKS `Once we figure out our identity, we can build a nation.'

Rithy Panh likes to make "both documentaries and feature films. I pay more attention to documentaries, as they have to be filmed interestingly. When a culture is threatened by genocide, war or globalisation, film is the only way to express oneself and defend one's identity. The difference between a feature and a documentary is, in a feature the story is in your head while in a documentary, you are dealing with real people in real situations. A documentary is a straight cut to reality."

The fear of losing one's identity is a real one for Rithy. Born in 1964, Rithy was interred in Khmer Rouge rehabilitation camp in 1975.

He lost his parents and his sister to Pol Pot's horrific regime. He escaped to Thailand and thence to France where he went to film school and has since made many award-winning documentaries and feature films.

In town in connection with the Festival Au Sud Du Cinema, a project where the French government funds films in developing countries, (Rithy is the President of the project), Rithy spoke of the need to "give a chance to real people. We need to give people a chance to talk and reflect. The man on the street is very brave, as he has to fight every minute of the day to live in dignity."

Decrying our tendency to be insular, Rithy commented, "We become blind and do not want to see the suffering. If we want the world to become a better place, we have to make documentaries that people would like to watch. An interesting documentary provides a platform where people can come together and watch and discuss what they see. The film should be an initiation to talk, which is very important given our individual, lonely lives. We seem to be together but I am not so sure."

"Society is like a super market. There is an immense diversity and we have to protect it. This is only possible if there is dialogue, if there is a cultural exchange and discussion about different points of view."

Addressing a need

Rithy, who was jury member at the recent Cinefan festival in Delhi and awarded a special jury prize to Yahaan, all praise for India's mammoth film industry when he says, "Mainstream films are necessary. People who live difficult lives need escapist fare. However, mainstream cinema is like a drug that turns the audience into zombies."

"That is why it is necessary to support the documentary as pedagogy. Documentary filmmakers are a courageous lot who want to present a point of view and not just empty images. There is a need to support filmmakers who keep track of a nation as it changes. We need to record the change in order to understand them."

"The future is about identity. Once we figure out our identity, we can build a nation. We need to know who we are. While a mainstream film does not address this need, only mainstream film can create a conducive environment for another Satyajit Ray. Cinema is not just entertainment it is art as well. While films generates employment to feed the stomachs of many people, we should also look at films as being able to feed the mind."

Rithy who has gone on record against the depiction of Cambodia in big Hollywood films like the Lara Croft movies, succinctly comments, "One does not need bombs to make war. Images will do as well. I am not saying this is good or bad. Images are very powerful. If you look at American movies depicting the war in Vietnam, except for one or two, all show the heroism of the American soldier even though they lost the war! But that is their way of coping with the trauma of losing."

Film exorcism

Rithy, who decided to process the terrible, brutal memories of the atrocities perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge with brilliant and disturbing films like Site II and Bophana: A Cambodian tragedy knows all about exorcism through film.

Rithy's feature The Rice People was screened as part of the festival and is based on a famous Malaysian novel and his next feature is adapted from a French novel. But ask him if he has any favourites and he firmly says, "I love all my children."

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