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Cambodia & Cinema: "Rendez-vous with Pol Pot", a necessary approach

In his latest feature, selected for the forthcoming Cannes Film Festival, Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh attempts to portray the events surrounding the Khmer Rouge genocide from an original angle. In his film Rendez-vous avec Pol Pot, he presents a "Western perspective" on the Khmer Rouge regime and the massacre perpetrated by Pol Pot's fanatics.

Image: © Dulac Distribution
Image: © Dulac Distribution

Understanding and making people understand

Between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia, the genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge caused the death of nearly two million people. Rithy Panh, who escaped the genocide in his youth, has constantly sought through his work to understand and help others understand how it could have come to this. It's worth remembering that the Western press, in this case the French, either glossed over this dramatic period in Cambodian history or, in the case of the left-wing press in particular, hailed the victory of the Khmer Rouge with the capture of Phnom Penh and the "ideal regime for the comrades" that Pol Pot was planning to put in place.

Watch the trailer

Rithy Panh pursues this approach with this film, which is inspired by the trip organised by Pol Pot's propaganda department for Western intellectuals and journalists who had come to witness the establishment of this totally utopian agro-industrial society that was to lead to total dehumanisation and programmed extermination.

The three Frenchmen, played by Irène Jacob, Cyril Gueï and Grégoire Colin, find themselves embroiled in a journey across the country where every interview is carefully blocked by the press officers of Angkar (The Party).

Inspiration

Rendezvous with Pol Pot was inspired by American journalist Elizabeth Becker's book When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.

Elizabeth Becker began covering Cambodia in 1973 for the Washington Post, when the country was seen as little more than a footnote in the Vietnam War before the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the closing of the borders and a systematic reorganisation of Cambodian society. The journalist's account covers the era of French colonialism and the revival of Cambodian nationalism, the Paris of the 1950s where Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot received his political education, the battlefields of Cambodia and the leader's death in 1998.

With this new opus on the Kingdom's dark period, Rithy Panh seems right to question the complacency and denial of these three journalists and many others. He does not hesitate to bring out the horror of the death camps from off-screen, using archive footage that challenges fiction with its overwhelming truth. Above all, it sets the record straight.

Necessity

In his various films about the Khmer Rouge, Rithy Panh has consistently challenged the traditional approach to historical subjects. Far from the traditional documentary, with S21 for example, he gives a voice to the survivors, confronts them with their executioners, allows himself no dramatic effects, no music, no sensationalism; the filmmaker throws out the naked truth, no matter how appalling. This is the director's talent: he conveys the story, and God knows how necessary this is, given that forgetting seems to have become one of the constants in today's chaotic society. This is where the filmmaker deserves immense respect, because he reminds us that we must not forget, and because he makes this approach original and hard-hitting with a strong style all his own.

Rendezvous with Pol Pot by Rithy Panh, Dulac (1 h 52), released on 5 June 2024.

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