The Burnt Theatre, or Les Artistes du Théâtre Brûlé, is a 2005 French-Cambodian docudrama directed and co-written by Rithy Panh. A blend of fact and fiction, based on the actual lives of the actors, the film depicts a troupe of actors and dancers struggling to practice their art in the burned-out shell of Cambodia’s former national theatre, the Preah Suramarit National Theatre in Phnom Penh.
The Burnt Theatre premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival as an official selection in the out-of-competition main programme,and has been screened at several other film festivals.
While much of Cambodia’s cultural heritage was eradicated through the deaths of many artists during the Khmer Rouge era, the country’s main theatrical structure, Preah Suramarit National Theatre remained standing throughout the Cambodian Civil War, even occasionally being used by the communist regime for official visits and propaganda pageants. Ironically, it was while the theatre was undergoing repairs in 1994 that it caught fire, was heavily damaged and has never been restored.
It is in this roofless performance hall that a Khmer classical dance troupe continues to practice daily, and a troupe of actors attempts to produce a Khmer-language adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac on a stage overgrown with weeds.
Around the theatre, Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital and largest city, is being rebuilt and redeveloped. Next door, a casino and resort hotel is being built, the slamming sound of the pile drivers provides a counterpoint to the action in the theatre.
Into the situation comes a journalist, Bopha Chheang, who interviews actor Than Nan Doeun, who portrays Cyrano. He and other actors reflect on the great productions of the past but lament the difficulties they are faced in a society that seems to have forgotten they exist.
Some of the actors receive a small stipend, around $10 to $15 a month, from the government, and supplement their incomes by appearing in karaoke videos and performing at nightclubs.
“Soon people won’t know what theatre is,” one actor says. “Everyone will be watching ghost films or singing the same lyrics like parrots.”
Also interviewed is actress Peng Phan (she appeared in Rithy Panh’s One Evening After the War and Rice People), who is racked with Survivor guilt and is overcome by psychosomatic illness.
The reporter’s questioning and the activities of the performers are intercut with scenes of men and women sifting through refuse at a garbage dump. At another point, the members of the theatre troupe forage for food in the theatre itself, harvesting bats from the ceiling of the theatre halls and frying the winged mammals in a wok.
Rithy Panh was born in Phnom Penh. His father was a school teacher and inspector of primary schools.
His family and other residents were expelled from the Cambodian capital in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. Rithy’s family suffered under the regime, and after he saw his parents, siblings and other relatives die of overwork or malnutrition, Rithy escaped to Thailand in 1979, where he lived for a time in a refugee camp at Mairut.
Eventually, he made his way to Paris, France. It was while he was attending vocational school to learn carpentry that he was handed a video camera during a party that he become interested in filmmaking. He went on to graduate from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for the Advanced Cinematographic Studies). He returned to Cambodia in 1990, while still using Paris as a home base.
His first documentary feature film, Site 2, about a family of Cambodian refugees in a camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s, was awarded… read more