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Dialogue with the Living and the Dead: Rithy Panh’s Masterclass

With more than 20 films to his name, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh digs deep and gets personal in his latest documentary, Graves Without A Name (2018). While his earlier works tell the stories of other Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime, Graves focuses on Panh’s personal journey as he searches for the graves of his late family and friends, victims of a genocide he himself survived.

Graves screened during the 29th edition of SGIFF, on 7 December 2018, after which Panh also spoke during a Q&A session. The next evening, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker was presented with the festival’s Honorary Award, for exceptional contributions to Asian cinema, at the Silver Screen Awards ceremony. Finally, on 9 December (the last day of the fest), fans gathered for Panh’s Masterclass, hosted by Elizabeth Wijaya, at National Museum of Singapore’s Salon.

Here are some highlights from that illuminating morning.

Cambodian director Rithy Panh, 9 December, 2018

Dialogues with the Dead

Panh has dedicated the past 30 years to confronting his nation’s tragic history, while encouraging discussions about trauma through his cinematic works. He is best known for his film The Missing Picture (2013), which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, and won Un Certain Regard at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. In that film, the director inventively pairs clay figurines with old news footage to illustrate the suffering of Cambodians during the Pol Pot regime.

During his masterclass, Panh explained that he sees clay as a beautiful symbol of life. Clay is moulded by our own hands, and it is up to us as individuals to ascribe identity or meaning to it. At the end of the day, though, clay returns back to earth; what remains is only its memory.

Clay figurines also make an appearance in Graves Without a Name, as does that cyclical idea of life and death.

‘I continue to exchange dialogues on the dead in my films because the dead are still in me,’ said Panh during the session. ‘We must not be afraid of the dead.’ While he understands that it is painful for Cambodians to discuss death, he believes that avoiding the discussion is worse.

Graves is, in a way, a study on the transmission of trauma across generations, an inheritance that Panh fears belongs to the families of the 1.8 million killed by the Khmer Rouge. The director hopes that his films, and the conversations they spark, will help prevent this trauma from passing down to the next generation of Cambodians.

Masterclass: Rithy Panh took place at National Museum of Singapore

France’s Influence on Panh’s Life and Films

Panh recalled the morning his family left their Phnom Penh home, on 17 April, 1975. They were escaping the Khmer Rouge regime. Panh’s parents, siblings and other relatives would later die of starvation and exhaustion, leaving the young man as the lone survivor in his family.

With those painful memories of his childhood deeply etched in his mind, Panh found it difficult to return to his former house. ‘I want to come back to my home… but I don’t want to be back without my family.’ As such, he moved to France at 16, and fell in love with filmmaking after receiving a Super 8 camera from his teacher.

Panh with SGIFF Chairman Sebastian Tan and Programme Director Pimpaka Towira at the Silver Screen Awards 2018

When a masterclass audience member asked about Panh’s choice to use French in his films, however, the filmmaker replied that the decision stemmed more from his childhood memories than his residency in France. Using French in his films, he said, was a way of reliving the experience of listening to his father recite poetry.

‘He used to read Jacques Prévert’s poetry to me. I only remembered cheveux noirs, cheveux noirs [“black hair, black hair”, from Prévert’s poem “Chanson pour vous“]. I didn’t understand it, but there was a music to it.’

Panh added, ‘When we make a film, we need something very personal to support and to drive us. You cannot go only with research and facts. You need more than that.’

Advice to Young Filmmakers: Originality

Lastly, Panh encouraged aspiring filmmakers to know their own style, rather than simply emulating celebrated filmmakers—such as famous Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Panh talks with fans after his masterclass

‘I see that a lot of young people are influenced by Apichatpong,’ he said. ‘You will see Apichatpong everywhere. A thousand Apichatpongs… Oh, slow down. There is only one Apichatpong!’

– Adora Tan

Photographs by Jean Paolo Ty.

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