Acclaimed Cambodian director Rithy Panh, whose family died in the Khmer Rouge genocide, received the Asian Filmmaker of the Year award at the Busan International Film Festival Friday for his efforts to save his country’s cinematic heritage.
The 49-year-old Panh has dedicated his life to seeking out and finding ways to save his country’s film history, left mostly destroyed under the brutal 1975-1979 reign of the Khmer Rouge that claimed around two million lives.
The award comes after his documentary The Missing Picture, which focuses on the loss of his parents and siblings during the genocide, won the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“In a small country like Cambodia we are losing our memory every day,” Panh said.
“(Film) prints will last only 150 years, if you have good condition of storage. This is not the case in Cambodia. Plus the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything. So we have a small amount of footage.”
The Missing Picture uses film from the period and clay dolls where footage is missing to recount the horrors.
Panh said the topic remained hard for many of his countrymen to face but he hoped the attention his awards were getting would be a source of encouragement.
“You don’t survive a regime like that because you are stronger or clever. You survive because people who die help you,” he said.
“You have to transmit their stories. It’s what the survivors have to do.
“When you survive genocide it is like you are dead already and have been reborn again. But you are reborn with the death inside you and you have to talk.”
Panh, who is the driving force behind his country’s fledgling Bophana: Audio Visual Resource Centre in Phnom Penh, has with his team scoured Cambodia – and the world – for copies of old films, newsreels, recorded radio transmissions and photos.
They recently unearthed footage shot by France’s Lumiere brothers in 1898 and have opened up their centre for public screenings, which he said were encouraging people to discuss the past – and then move on.
“You cannot turn over an empty page,” he explained.
“When you screen a film like The Missing Picture, it is not like watching TV. Watching TV is a very solitary.
“When you watch cinema you watch it together and you talk about it after the screening. For this reason I am very happy I made a good choice to make film.”