Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rithy Panh's Burnt Theater at Cannes

Cambodian director Rithy has returned to Cannes, bringing his latest film, The Burnt Theater, for an out-of-competition screening.

A documentary, it traces the fate of Cambodia's national theater and its performers under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. It's a harrowing tale, fraught with the kinds of tragic absurdities that are a part of everyday life in Cambodia.

"The theater was built in the 1960s but the Khmer Rouge did not destroy it. They kept it to show propaganda plays and receive delegations but they didn't blow it up," Rithy told Agence France-Presse. "After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, some survivors managed to revive the traditional Khmer theater but it burned down 10 years ago and no one has rebuilt it."

The surviving performers continue to use the space for rehearsals in a bid to keep the traditional Khmer arts alive.

"I believe in the role of art in society, especially in the case of Cambodia where it was attacked under the Khmer Rouge regime," he said. "This story of my film is that hole in the middle of the city, practically a hole in its memory."

Panh traces the story of the theater's actors, who were also abandoned without a job and without a future, left only to get by with their memories.

"We speak of cultural diversity these days but not of the broad spectrum of memory. But it is memory today that is at stake today -- countries that come to terms with their memories continue to develop but under-developed countries find themselves imposing another memory which is not their own," he warned.

"All my films deal with memory," said Rithy, who escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge labor camps himself at the age of 15.

Rithy is a regular at Cannes, where he presented his drama, Rice People, in the 1994 competition, One Evening After the War in the Un Certain Regard section in 1998 and S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine in 2003 in which he depicted an unexpected meeting between victims and perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide.

"People's expression has never been as threatened as it is today. The technology is there, the economy is there. It is strange that no place is given to cultural expression," he told AFP, blaming the popularity of television and a nationwide desire to forget.

His 1989 documentary Site 2 confronted the horror of the camps while the 1999's The Land of the Wandering Souls told the story of a fiber-optic cable stretching from Thailand to Vietnam, the digging for which turned up the remains of dozens of victims of Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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