Being nominated for an Oscar is always a big deal, lifting someone’s career or a movie’s fortunes at the box office. In Cambodia, an Oscar nomination is proving to be a big deal for an entire nation, crystallizing how important reviving the arts has been for a country devastated by decades of war, genocide and corruption.
One of the movies nominated for best foreign film this year is “The Missing Picture,” by Cambodia’s master filmmaker Rithy Panh. His movie tells the story of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge and its leader, Pol Pot, who turned Cambodia into a mass labor camp. Panh’s parents and brother were among the nearly 2 million people killed by the regime in less than four years.
Panh’s survival was remarkable. It is as if Anne Frank had lived through the Holocaust and been able to tell her own story in a film as writer and director. In “The Missing Picture,” Panh uses clay figures set against archival films and photographs. Poignant, unexpected, Cambodian.
This nomination made history: the first time a Cambodian film has been nominated for an Oscar. It also broke open a breathing space for Cambodians fighting to recover their democracy.
The new year began with Cambodian police opening fire on unarmed garment workers, who were demonstrating to be paid $160 a month. By the end of the day, police had killed five people and injured many more. For good measure, the authoritarian government of Hun Sen put a ban on all demonstrations. Politics were getting ugly once again.
Then Hollywood intervened. News of the historic Oscar nomination was everywhere. Social media lit up. Cambodians were elated, sending messages thanking the film’s director for lifting their spirits and saying they could finally be proud after years of “darkness and despair.”
Darkness doesn’t begin to describe Cambodia’s slow recovery from the Khmer Rouge, the battle for control over Cambodia and the fatal compromise that allowed Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge officer, to share power even though he lost the election in 1993.
In the two decades since, other nations have donated billions of dollars for Cambodia’s reconstruction, rebuilding infrastructure, schools and agriculture and underwriting a civil society. Led by China and South Korea, countries have made massive investments in Cambodia’s industry, natural resources and tourism.
Separately, with a minuscule amount of money and far less fanfare, other foreign philanthropists and artists set about to revive the legendary arts of Cambodia.
The impact of the economic aid and investment is obvious. Cambodia enjoys an impressive 7% growth rate. Yet it hasn’t helped the vast majority of Cambodians; 1 of 3 Cambodians lives on less than $1 a day. Most of the new wealth went to the country’s leaders, who through blatant corruption and tight control of the nation’s resources have become multimillionaires, enriching a close circle of families and friends. They have held on to power by rigging elections, buying off rivals and using the full force of the police and military to eliminate dissent and democracy.
Or at least that was the case until last year, when opposition groups of all varieties — political parties, unions, human rights defenders and civil society — united for the first time. In recent months, they have massed by the hundreds of thousands to protest the latest election fraud and ask for reasonable wages. The government isn’t rolling over, but the opposition has been invigorated.
Feeding this new confidence and reminding Cambodians of their extraordinary cultural heritage is the renaissance of Cambodian arts. This, after all, is the country that built the extraordinary temples of Angkor, with their divine sculptures of gods and sensual angels. Anyone who has visited Angkor or seen a Cambodian ballet understands how central the arts are to the country’s identity.
After several decades of uneven but vital support, Cambodian ballet troupes are again touring the world. Cambodian music, vocal and instrumental, is being recovered and heard alongside modern pop music. Artists in silver or rattan, as well as silk weavers, painters, photographers and potters, are working in the Cambodian idiom again, adapting to more global forms as they work. All this was displayed last spring when New York hosted the “Season of Cambodia” celebrating the country’s traditional and modern living arts.
And then there is film.
In a sign of how much was destroyed by war and the Khmer Rouge, Rithy Panh is the godfather of modern Cambodian film at the age of 49. His predecessors are all dead. As a refugee and student in Paris, he won support from the French movie industry, and his return to Cambodia has nurtured his country’s industry.
When his film “The Missing Image” won a major prize at Cannes, he said the award was important for the country as whole. “It means that we are alive. It means that we can express our feelings. It means that the Khmer Rouge didn’t destroy our imagination; they couldn’t destroy it.”
And he added, “When you preserve your heritage, when you can preserve your memory, you build social cohesion.”
The acclaim over Panh’s Oscar nomination erupted at the peak of Cambodia’s political standoff, contrasting the two sides of Cambodia’s soul. In modern times Cambodia has suffered under some of the worst political leaders. By contrast, the arts are fueling society’s recovery, reminding Cambodians who they are and where they have come from.
As one social media posting put it, “We are proud of him for Cambodia.”
Elizabeth Becker is the author of “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.”