Halfway through your life, the images of your youth return to you, says Rithy Panh in his award-winning autobiographical documentary. As he approaches the age of 50, his mind is inundated with memories of his life between the ages of 13 and 17, when he and his family were driven out of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and put to work in the countryside. Within four years, his parents, sister and cousin had perished. Like tens of thousands of other Cambodians whose urban origins or “intellectual” profession didn't suit the Communist Party’s vision of a rural utopia, their fate was to end up as fertilizer for rice fields.
Panh depicts this history in a series of dioramas, using figures that we see being made at the beginning of the film from the same clay soil that swallowed so many lives. As a voice reads passages from Panh’s book The Elimination, the clay figures grow to become characters of flesh and blood. Panh thus creates the pictures that are missing from the archives, which hold only propaganda and no memories of living, suffering and dying under an inhuman regime.
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