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The Sounds of Everyday Life in Rithy Panh's Documentaries

From: French Forum
Volume 35, Numbers 2-3, Spring/Fall 2010
pp. 181-190 | 10.1353/frf.2010.0004

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Although Rithy Panh's films are seldom screened in the United States, except in festival venues and college campuses, and conspicuously absent from scholarly discussion, with rare exceptions, they deserve to be better known because they are a much needed antidote to Hollywood's filmic representation of Southeast Asia, which has been almost exclusively devoted to the Vietnam War and its after effects on America and Americans. They also merit the sustained critical attention of film and cultural critics because they supplement, in important ways, the exotic images deployed by Franco-Vietnamese filmmaker, Tran Anh Hung, in such films as The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), and The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000). In a growing corpus of films—his most recent being his adaptation of Marguerite Duras's novel, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (2008)—Rithy Panh bears witness to history and the Cambodian tragedy. His uncompromising and ethical way of "filming speech" reveals the sense of urgency with which he engages momentous subjects like war, genocide, indentured labor, geographic displacement, survival in refugee camps, prostitution, and the everyday practices of those who survived both the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime. By capturing the sounds of everyday life and the voices of these "damned of the earth" on the film strip, Rithy Panh also succeeds in developing a particular film aesthetic, a cinema that demands that viewers reflect on the role of cinema, its responsibility, its ethics, a cinema that is haunted by history.

By focusing on the work of Rithy Panh, my aim is to consider cinema as a form of filmic testimonial and eye witnessing that problematizes the very notion of documentary filmmaking and its limits; to address the specificity of the Cambodian situation, while situating it within the larger context of regional conflicts and transnational development; and finally, to reflect on the nature of cinematic significa-tion. Three of his documentaries, Site 2 (1989), The Land of Wandering Souls (2000), and Paper Cannot Wrap Amber (2007) will help me frame these questions.

On Trauma, Aphasia and Filmmaking

I contend that all of Rithy Panh's films set in Cambodia originated in the experience of trauma. Having escaped the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime in power between 1975 and 1979, he witnessed and survived its murderous impulse. From his very first film, Site, a documentary on life in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, to S-21, his 2002 film that brought face to face survivors of a detention and torture center that had once been a lycée and their Khmer Rouge torturers, who now lead a peaceful (if remorseful) life, and more recently, Paper Cannot Wrap Amber (2007), Rithy Panh bears witness to and memorializes the life of Cambodians who were among the two million dead killed by the Khmer Rouge. His films, then, can be seen as the ghostly traces of the work of mourning and the haunting testimonial that attests and documents the genocide, the deliberate and systematic destruction of Cambodians who posed a putative—and almost always imaginary—threat to the Khmer Rouge regime. His films also excavate deeply repressed memories of the genocide and the tragic consequences of thirty years of war on the Cambodian people so that these events can never be forgotten. How he has come to use the art of cinema as an important tool to memorialize these events will detain us below.

"Trauma," as Cathy Caruth has written so eloquently in Unclaimed Experience, "describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena" (Caruth 11). Caruth also adds that it is in that "bewildering encounter with trauma—both in its occurrence and in the attempt to understand it—that we can begin to recognize the possibility of a history that is no longer straightforwardly referential (that is, no longer based on simple models of experience and reference)" (Caruth 11). If Rithy Panh's films emerged as a response to the trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge's genocidal violence, we must heed Caruth's words and not simply...

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