While the rest of the world was disco dancing and geeking out to Star Wars, the nation of Cambodia was plunged into a mid-to-late-’70s deathscape of mass starvation and work-camp despair under the Khmer Rouge. Documentary director Rithy Panh is a childhood survivor of this era; he saw his family destroyed and has little evidence to prove their existence.
His Oscar-nominated latest, an unshakable testament to the power of memory, re-creates the period in the unsettling form of kid-friendly dioramas, inhabited by clay figures of black-shirted prisoners and sad farm animals. The conceit is tremendously daring, but one with a huge payoff, suggesting an evil that can’t be fully processed by young eyes.
Elsewhere, Panh includes crumbling b&w footage of the actual camps, shot by official cinematographers who were tortured for poor exposure or for letting depressing realities seep in. Either via clay dolls or fragile flesh, the truth is unmissable—as is Panh’s film itself.
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