A day in the life of Rithy Panh – in Cambodia Town and Art Theatre

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://www.imprintculturelab.com

If you watched last weekend’s Academy Awards, hopefully you noticed that Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture. The Cambodian/French co-production is an artful and ingenious retelling of the filmmaker’s surviving the Khmer Rouge and its consideration was a milestone for Cambodians around the world whose country and culture were nearly killed off by the cruel regime. It was very cool that the Cannes-winning film received its pre-Oscar premiere run not in New York City or Los Angeles, but at the Art Theatre in Long Beach, home to the second-largest Cambodian population outside Asia.

Even better, Panh and his crew dropped by the venue the day before the Academy Awards ceremony to introduce a special screening and take part in a panel discussion afterward. Imprint’s sister company interTrend helped to facilitate the after-screening program, and I was honored and stoked to not only help coordinate the panel but join it. The filmmaker’s crew included producer Catherine Dussart, French narrator Randal Douc, and composer Marc Marder. To add extra perspective, singer Chhom Nimol from Dengue Fever, rapper/Cambodia Town Film Festival director Prach Ly, Hawaii International Film Festival director of programming Anderson Le, and I were added to the panel. Moderating was Imprint and interTrend’s own Julia Huang.

Before the matinee screening, there was a lunch at Berlin Bistro for the afternoon’s participants. My wife and I sat next to Douc, who it turns out is not only a regular in Panh’s movies but a mathematics professor on the side. He and his wife were extremely friendly, and said the stormy weather reminded them of Paris. So did the Jim Morrison mural across the street. I didn’t get to talk to Panh or Dussart quite as much but they were also very humble and nice. When I expressed how much I appreciated their taking a break from their Hollywood-centered schedule to attend a screening way out in Long Beach on a rainy afternoon, the latter said it was their honor.

There was no need to introduce my friend Nimol to the well-dressed Voice of American reporter who was covering the event. He has interviewed her band Dengue Fever many times. And of course Ly was familiar with everyone in the room, including Long Beach Museum of Art executive director Ron Nelson. (That’s Ly’s fellow CTFF co-founder Caylee So to his right.)

It worked out that a couple of cooks in Berlin’s kitchen happened to be Cambodian, and they were excited to prepare  traditional Khmer dishes for the esteemed visitors. Before the lunch party ended, I made sure they were able to take a photo with the award-winning filmmaker, who posed with a figurine from the movie.

 The screening was comfortably full with friends, family, and cineastes of all kinds. Cambodia Town and Long Beach honchos were out in full force, as well, lining up to give Panh an armful of plaques and trophies to show their appreciation for his equally courageous and creative work. Nearly 40 years after it began, the Cambodian Genocide is still swept under the rug by survivors for both emotional and political reasons. On the big screen, the movie was both crushing and gorgeous. The local and internationally renowned Khmer Arts Academy performed an elegant and otherworldly traditional dance afterward.

In the panel moderated by Julia, Panh stressed how The Missing Picture is not just a new movie but part of an ongoing body of work that features production by Dussart, acting by Douc, and music by Marder. And in the even bigger picture, he hopes that his cinema will be both embraced and even appropriated by others–especially younger Cambodians like the ones who keep up the movie’s Facebook page and started making pink polka-dot T-shirts that match his figure in the film. Le further elaborated about the context and importance of Panh’s body of work, while Nimol and Prach discussed not only reclaiming but growing new Cambodian culture through their music. How did Julia balance all that?

Of course another major topic of discussion was Panh’s use of carvings to tell his story. It was an idea he stumbled upon long after starting the autobiographical process, his colleague Sarith Mang fashioning each clay figure by hand. The pieces serve not only as a way to tell a story that has little evidence (most existing images are from the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda machine, and they are woven into the film) but also a way to avoid censorship and insert a level of craft and soul. In the Q&A, I suggested that the disarming use of raw, playful media to communicate the historical atrocities was somewhat analogous to the Dead Kennedys “Holiday in Cambodia” and I wonder what the other panelists thought of that.

The Missing Picture is a movie that combines art, history, and emotion like few others. It will begin to roll out nationally on March 19 but please see and support its inaugural run at The Art Theatre in Long Beach until March 6