Cambdodian film-maker Rithy Panh was a teenager in Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge marched into the city. He and his relatives were placed in labour camps where they endured experiences that were both horrific and truly bizarre. Not much archive footage other than propaganda film exists of Pol Pot's Cambodia. Panh therefore uses clay figurines to reconstruct the events of his confinement.
Panh's remarkable new documentary works as a survivor's testament, a film about memory and loss – and as a self-reflexive essay asking how atrocities should be depicted on screen.
In his book The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge, which was co-written with Christophe Bataille and serves as a companion piece to the film, Panh expresses his admiration for Claude Lanzmann, director of the interview-based Holocaust documentary Shoah. Lanzmann's genius, Panh suggests, lay in allowing the viewer to "see through words." His own approach here with the clay models strives for a similar effect. The models, although beautifully crafted, are inexpressive.
The director, who claims he can remember "every detail" of his captivity, is challenging viewers to picture what he endured. By not using atrocity footage, he is also showing respect for the victims. His approach is certainly more subtle, discreet and sensitive than that pursued by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing (which invited genocidal killers in Indonesia to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favourite movie genres.)