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Glimpses of Cambodia’s French Past

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Glimpses of Cambodia’s French Past

Cambodia’s foremost filmmaker discusses his new documentary about colonialism.

Glimpses of Cambodia’s French Past
Credit: From La France est Notre Patrie

At some point in the early twentieth or late nineteenth century, when France still ruled over vast swathes of the globe, a colonized woman in modern-day Southeast Asia was filmed as she encountered the camera. In the recording, she totters towards the lens and toys with its gaze. Behind and unseen, two French men laugh at her. The clip has a timeless quality: the woman’s curious focus recalls a child taking its first steps; the cruel men, framed in the shadow of a grand stone edifice, could be slave owners in the American south or conspirators from Julius Caesar – any men in the seat of power at any time.

Cambodian-French director Rithy Panh’s new documentary, doing the rounds of international film festivals, is pieced together from scenes such as this, unearthed from extensive French archives. “Powerful people don’t watch the camera the same way as weak and poor people,” he said, during a recent interview in his cozy, cluttered Phnom Penh office. These clips, examples of what he calls the “historic image,” were the gold dust of his search to compile footage for La France est Notre Patrie (“France is Our Mother Country”), a 75-minute romp through the scrapbook of colonialism in Southeast Asia and Africa.

“There are a lot of images that aren’t historic because we can watch them and find nothing interesting, but some have an echo – there’s a link to your living condition, your politics, your morals,” said the director, who speaks with a strong French accent.

La France est Notre Patrie is Panh’s first film since his autobiographical The Missing Picture, which used clay figures to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge, took Cambodia to the Oscars for the first time last year. It’s a similar mix of charm and horror. There are comedic scenes: bemused housewives wander crowded markets; lumbering French hunters straddle tiny ponies; soldiers parade with their ‘little spouses’ to the sound of jaunty piano tunes. But in other shots, forests burn, axes fell great trees, and women laugh as they toss crumbs to beggars. As a mother, France is seen taking more than she gives, plundering her colonies of their forests and other natural resources and taking their men to fight in foreign wars.

When Panh, now in his 50s, was growing up in post-colonial Phnom Penh, after Cambodia won its independence in 1953, his father talked about the legacy the French had left. The older man was anxious about the inequalities sowed: there was a vast chasm between the Vietnamese who were favored and educated by the French, and those who were not.

“It’s like something still with you, like a scar,” Panh said. He believes those inequalities helped pave the way for the Khmer Rouge to take over in 1975 and use their Marxist ideology, imported from Paris, to slaughter a quarter of the population. “The Khmer Rouge didn’t come in one day,” he said. “They can win because they had support from people. They had support from people because people had lived too long a time in poverty.” The director’s father was among the victims. Panh survived, and sought refuge in France after the regime fell in 1979. But this film wasn’t a personal mission to indict colonialism, he said. “I was not colonized. I was born after. I have no revenge, nothing like that. I just find it very interesting, that question: what is a historic image?”

The central, absent image in The Missing Picture is of mass murder: no visual documentation of the Khmer Rouge’s worst crimes has been found. La France est Notre Patrie, too, makes more use of everyday scenes than dramatic ones. “For me, it’s not important – this image of killing,” said Panh. “Even if we find it, I’m not sure I will use it. Sometimes, a horrible image destroys everything. It does not ask people to reflect. You give them the horrible thing, they shout ‘horrible!’ and it’s finished. It’s more interesting to ask people to think about the problem. To show them the big scope. What kind of image is it? Who produced it? What is the relationship between the guy who took the picture and those who were pictured? It’s like an archaeologist.”

In the absence of dialogue or commentary, the narrative of La France est Notre Patrie comes from juxtaposition. Quotes from an Orientalist French doctor who traveled through the region during the colonial era are interspersed with the footage in the black-and-white style of a silent film. “The only great works have come from the white race,” pops up after sweeping shots of the temples of the Angkor empire. “France seeks neither possessions nor glory” is followed by the crash of felled trees. “Some people tell me it’s scandalous,” said Panh. “Of course, I take the image out of their contexts to give to each image a new sense. Somebody from Africa watched the film and said, ‘It’s not about Africa, but it’s about Africa also.’”

Initially Panh planned only to take footage from colonial Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The working title was Cochinchine (‘Cochinchina’). But after editing the footage together he noticed similarities to clips from African colonies. “When you cut the forest here and you cut the forest in Cameroon it’s the same,” he says. As well as across continents, the film also resonates across time, as deforestation continues to devastate the region. “The first thing the colonialist did was to take natural resources, and it’s the same for today,” Panh said. Could you call it a modern-day colonialism? “Yes, it’s like a new form of colonialism,” he said. “We call it globalization.”

Cambodia has felt the full force of globalization in recent years, with the rise of the garment industry and proliferation of factories producing cheap goods and paying cheap wages. Many traditional Cambodian crafts, like silk-weaving, are dying as demand falls and artisans switch jobs.“Sometimes the Chinese tourist comes and buys the Chinese silk made in Cambodia and goes back to China,” said Panh. “Globalization asks us to link together like we are in the same village. It seems to me that culture does not have a place in this development.”

As for the filmmaker, part-Cambodian, part-French, does he feel any conflict about his own divided heritage? As he points out, he didn’t have much choice but to leave his home. “It was the war. It was Pol Pot. I’m happy for the part of my life in France. I learned a lot, I reconstructed myself there.” Today French money supports several leading arts organizations in Phnom Penh, founded to help prop up Khmer cultural institutions, like the traditional music which features heavily in Panh’s film. “Now the problem is not France, it’s other countries,” he said. “Maybe France can help us. Or help us to have consciousness about our situation today.”

That’s what he hopes La France est Notre Patrie will do, too. “A film cannot change the world,” he said. “But maybe it can open your eyes and tell you that you have in your hand the possibility of change.”