Rithy Panh on Fact and Fiction at the Busan Film Festival

Rithy Panh, director of “Rice People” and “S21 The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” is an icon of art-house cinema, at once political, unique, and charming. The iconic image may be another of his confections – a palatable work built on uncomfortable facts.

On the incomplete evidence of a 50-minute on-stage dialog at the Busan International Film Festival on Sunday, Panh comes across as simultaneously contrarian and principled. A curmudgeonly veteran and yet a filmmaker still curious to learn.

“If there were no Khmer Rouge maybe I would not be a filmmaker,” he said of the Communist insurgents, who won the Cambodian civil war in 1975 and whose brutality and atrocities he has spent a lifetime documenting and exposing.

Panh’s family lost everything to the marauding Khmer Rouge or during their five-year rule. He was internally deported into the rice fields, escaped to Thailand and later became a refugee sent to France.

“I dreamed of having a camera to record what was happening,” he said. “[At one moment] I wanted to go to Australia, where I heard they have lots of desert, and to get lost. The UN told me instead that I was going to France.”

There, he tried to establish himself as a painter – focusing on other genocides including those in Auschwitz and Palestine – and later began his formal training as a filmmaker.

As the subject of such a presentation, incongruously branded by high fashion firm Chanel and the BIFF Asian Film Academy, Panh is a curious case study. He slumps low in his chair, wears his wide-brimmed hat throughout the proceedings and speaks in quiet, eloquent chunks that suddenly seem to skip and head off in a new direction.

Panh’s responses hint at deep reserves of anger and of humor, possibly intertwined. “My capacity to retain the poetry of childhood saved my life. It protected me from the Khmer Rouge, hunger, and the lack of imagination of the Khmers,” he said at one point, and described a time when he sang his own words over Bee Gees tunes.

An audience question about his recent experience as the head of the jury of the TikTok film competition at Cannes, elicited “two different answers” from the master. (In May, Panh resigned in protest at the alleged interference of the short video company in the judging process. But he later re-joined.)

The company received 70,000 film submissions and selected 120 for the jurors weigh in on. “That was my first conflict with TikTok,” he said deadpan.

But he also used the example to hint at the artistic possibilities of vertical video formats and short film, worry about the issue of deep fakes and the responsibility of artists. “I don’t have the answers,” he said. “But I can see how a big company uses this medium.”

He praised documentary filmmakers and people who use their phone as a camera to record events. He suggested that this is what should be going on in Asian trouble-spots such as Afghanistan and Myanmar today.

“You have to collect the details today. If you don’t, history will repeat itself,” he said. “In Cambodia, I train people on documentaries first, even if I know they will move to fiction. Ken Loach and Kubrick include a lot of reality in their [fiction] films.”

Panh confirmed that in Cambodia he is currently archiving Khmer Rouge propaganda movies. “They are fiction films,” he said archly, before returning to the theme of genre fluidity. “A fiction film is stronger when the director comes from documentaries.”

Responding to another audience question about animation, Panh said that was not in favor of 3D animation. He described it as “too clinical” and lacking poetry.

In “The Missing Picture” Panh used a technique borrowed from children’s fiction – clay figurines — for large parts of a documentary that dealt with a subject, the 1975-79 Pol Pot era, too painful to handle with live action.

“The most powerful part of any film is poetry,” Panh intoned. “With Picasso, the older he got the more childlike [his work] became.”