Happy Birthday, Rithy Panh!

I’m planning a research project in Cambodia. Thus, I’m trying to get my hands on anything on Cambodia. So I recently watched Rithy Panh’s documentary Les Tombeaux Sans Noms (Graves Without A Name, 2018) on the countless people who were killed and vanished (or ‘were abandoned’ as the murderers called it) during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979).

Rithy Panh–who turned 55 today–was born in Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) and had to experience the genocide personally: his entire family died. Les Tombeaux Sans Noms is the story of his family, but also of the other victims of the Khmer Rouge. At the age of 15, he managed to escape to Thailand. He finally made it to France and became a filmmaker.

The documentary is very different from what I expected. I expected a lot of action. I expected an account of the genocide I don’t know as much about as I wish I would. Instead it could have been labeled an ethnographic film. Close captions of just a few people calmly telling their stories. (You’ll find more stories here.) Pictures of missing men, women, and children. Rithy Panh’s family. Literary narrations. The documentary approaches the topic in an almost artistic way.

The documentary is very moving. At times, the stories brought tears to my eyes. Stories of hunger, of exhaustion, of desperation. All of them made an impact on me.

A young peasant, for example, joined the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army, the armed forces of Democratic Kampuchea (the name of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge), because he wanted equality for everyone. He didn’t want the suffering brought on by the Khmer Rouge. When he told his story, he was full of regret.

Everyone was starving during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. A young woman wanted to live so desperately that she cooked and ate the thigh of a recently deceased and buried person. Hunger and desperation do that. Horrific regimes do that. While others were killed for stealing a tiny bit of food, she was sent to a ‘re-education camp.’ She survived, but most Khmers in these camps didn’t. They are called ‘Khmer Rouge Killing Fields’ for a reason.

Many survivors, amongst them Rithy Panh, try to find the remains of their killed relatives. They rarely succeed. Most victims were buried in mass graves. Or were just left where they had died.

Last week, I talked about precarity and about putting everything into perspective. This documentary does that. (That doesn’t mean that our lives cannot be difficult, our pasts cannot be traumatic.)

I didn’t plan to do my research on the genocide. But I’m tempted to include aspects. People should know more about these horrific events. I wish I were a forensic anthropologist and could do something about the graves full of unidentified individuals whose families and friends are looking for them. That would feel helpful.

If you have the means, please consider to support Bophana Center, founded by Rithy Panh. They offer free access to Cambodian images and sounds and train young Khmers.

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