Cambodian director Rithy Panh has lived in Paris since he fled his country’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, and from that distance he has movingly taken on the mission to tell and re-tell for the cinema the tales of this usually ignored if not forgotten period in 20th century history. His last feature, The Missing Picture, directly addressed the tragic lack of images of the regime during its reign from 1975 - 1979, a gap in historical vision that Panh cleverly and endearingly tried to alleviate by using dioramas and clay figures to “picture” what was experienced by millions but has subsequently gone unseen.
His new film, Exile, is more of a personal essay than that documentary and covers the next stage in Cambodia's history, the subsequent communist rule of the Democratic Kampuchea. Despite Panh being abroad during this time, the film has a particularly intimate and lyrical touch, and it, too, bravely steps into the void of historical memory outside of Cambodia and helps us see what we cannot. The lone set is a thatch hut, obviously built on a sound stage, which we see in various states of affluence and disrepair; the one protagonist is a Cambodian man who we watch make and eat threadbare meals of leather, rats and insects, repair his ragged clothing—as well as dream, the room filled with stage prop clouds and planets. All are but glimpses of memories and experiences re-told in this theatrical artifice, re-creations with powerful shadows of reality—a photo of Panh’s mother, the terrible meals eaten on camera—done in the sad isolation of a fake set: a potato field remade on stage, a destroyed village built in miniature in the hut, all the planets of the solar system revolving above this anonymous prisoner of history.
Equally important is the soundtrack, a text read, as in The Missing Picture or in essay films by Chris Marker, by someone other than the director, so as to help keep the narration from sounding overwhelmingly personal. This text begins praising the simplicity of communist slogans, which have a clarity and directness that approaches poetry, yet the praise for the revolution espoused on the soundtrack clashes radically with the poverty of the Cambodian on screen. The end credits make clear that this narration is in fact partially original and partially a collage of writings ranging from Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh to René Clair and other writers. The words advocate and condemn certain kinds of living, touch upon revolution, repression and terror, daily living and the struggle to survive. They sometimes disagree with and at other times amplify the plight of the Cambodian’s bare existence. Panh’s modest combination of this amalgamated man’s living and a collage of ideas that justify, praise, override and deride this life results in a moving and quietly provocative history film—a history that while lived by so many, is still impossible to completely grasp.