Cinema and Media Studies Rithy Panh
Chairat Polmuk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0304


Rithy Panh (b. 1964) is an internationally and critically acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker and screenwriter. A survivor of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1979), Panh spent a year at a refugee camp in Thailand and another ten years in France, where he attended the prestigious Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (Institute for advanced cinematographic studies). Panh’s first documentary film Site 2 (1989) documents lives of his compatriots at the refugee camp at a Cambodian-Thai border area; it also marks the filmmaker’s return to Cambodia to confront the country’s past violence and its continuing impact on the present. The cinema of Rithy Panh is thus well known for its thematic emphasis on the traumatic experience of genocide, displacement, and exploitation. His fiction films such as Rice People (1994) and One Evening After the War (1998), as well as documentaries such as The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000) and People of Angkor (2003), showcase Pan’s sustained meditations on socioeconomic struggles in post-genocide Cambodia. During the past decades, Panh’s documentary practices and experimental aesthetics have rekindled critical attention to the complex relations between film and memory, visual representation and ethics, and media testimony and justice. His 2003 documentary film S–21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, in which Khmer Rouge survivors reenact their memories at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison center (known by its code name S–21), has sparked scholarly debates regarding the method of reenactment in relation to trauma. The use of hand-carved clay figurines in his 2013 film The Missing Picture demonstrates another inventive feature of Panh’s documentary aesthetics. The film won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard award and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Panh’s transnational trajectory sheds light on the general context of postcolonial Southeast Asian cinema as well as the particular situation of the contemporary Cambodian film industry. In 2006, Panh co-founded the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh, an archive of records from the Khmer Rouge period and beyond and a training center for a new generation of Cambodian filmmakers. The Bophana Center is named after Hout Bophana, a woman who was executed under the Pol Pot regime and who inspired Panh’s 1996 film Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy. Panh has recently expanded his cinematic practices, serving as a co-producer of the Netflix adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir about the Cambodian genocide, First They Killed My Father (dir. Angelina Jolie, 2017). Panh also curated the multimedia installation Exile, which accompanied his 2017 film by the same name, and directed a stage production, Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia (2018).

Writings by Rithy Panh

Rithy Panh’s writings provide autobiographical accounts of the filmmaker as a Khmer Rouge survivor and insight into the ethical imperative of his films. Panh and Bataille 2013 is a book-length memoir that comprises the director’s childhood memory and his interviews with a former Khmer Rouge official. Panh 1999 offers a critical view on the absence of justice and responsibility regarding the Cambodian genocide. Panh 2001 describes the filmmaker’s conceptual and aesthetic framework through which he reckons with the Khmer Rouge mass destruction and its consequences.

  • Panh, Rithy. “Cambodia: A Wound That Will Not Heal.” Unesco Courier 52.12 (December 1999): 30–32.

    Panh’s reflection on his experience as a Khmer Rouge survivor, how he copes with survivor’s guilt, the Khmer Rouge destruction of identity and memory, and his commitment as a filmmaker to bringing truth and justice to Cambodia. Panh stresses the necessity to confront the horrific past as a political and moral responsibility to the dead.

  • Panh, Rithy. “La parole filmée: Pour vaincre la terreur.” Communications 17 (2001): 373–394.

    DOI: 10.3406/comm.2001.2093

    An academic article in which Panh introduces the notion of “filmed speech” [la parole filmée] to describe his documentary practice. By this notion, Panh refers to the way in which documentary films can capture the everyday speech of ordinary citizenry. Panh juxtaposes the everyday and heterogeneous speech to a discourse of linguistic purity and abstraction such as that of the Khmer Rouge regime.

  • Panh, Rithy, and Christopher Bataille. Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields. Translated by John Cullen. New York: Other Press, 2013.

    A memoir in which Panh recounts his encounter with Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), a commandant of the notorious S-21 prison center (today the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum) during his trial in 2010. Panh weaves his face-to-face conversations with Duch with the memory of his life at the Khmer Rouge forced labor camp from 1975 to 1979. The memoir is adapted into two films: Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, and The Missing Picture.

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