International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Oscars: An Agent of Social Change?

One of the movies nominated this year for best foreign film was “The Missing Picture,” by a Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. This is the first time a Cambodian film has been nominated for an Oscar, and though it did not win it has brought media attention to the atrocities still being perpetrated by the Cambodian government and brought hope to the Cambodian opposition. The director’s parents and brother were among the 4 million people killed under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, and the film tells of the atrocities committed. In this article the author compares Rithy Panh to Anne Frank and says that it was as if “Anne Frank had lived through the Holocaust and been able to tell her own story in a film as writer and director.”

What is interesting about the film is that it draws the public eye back to Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge tribunals begin to come to an end. Cambodia has faced a difficult and slow recovery after the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge regime, and though over the last 20 years countries have donated billions of dollars to reconstruct the Cambodian infrastructure, schools, tourism, industry, and agriculture, 1 out of 3 Cambodians live on less than $1 a day and earlier this year when garment workers peacefully demonstrated for a wage increase the Cambodian police opened fire killing 5 and injuring many more. In instances like this we need to ask who international aid is helping? Often the regime that takes over post-conflict is itself not blameless and one has to question whether the aid is helping the people of the country or instead entrenching a regime that may be bad for the country.

The arts can be a form of restorative justice; in “The Missing Picture” the director is able to not only memorialize his family but also reveal the depth of the atrocities propagated by the Khmer Rouge. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this film has invigorated the Cambodian opposition and increased the international community’s awareness of the problems in the country. During the regime artists were practically stamped out, and Panh at 49 is considered the “godfather of Cambodian film.” Though Cambodia still faces problems, the return of the arts is a promising step forward for the country and the awareness it can bring will hopefully hold the Cambodian government accountable to something. My question though, is have the tribunals in the country had an important role in the country’s progress? The government has hindered the tribunals on every front, and I question whether the traditional “transitional justice” process in Cambodia can take credit for the forward motion the country has made or if the future lies in restorative justice methods like the restoration of the arts.



2 responses to “The Oscars: An Agent of Social Change?

  1. pstichnoth March 4, 2014 at 11:41 am

    This film (I haven’t seen it!) brings up two main issues for me: the effects of international awareness post-conflict, and the significance of foreign aid to processes of transitional justice and reconciliation.

    International awareness seems like a good thing, and can definitely have positive effects. International attention can help with elections and peacekeeping, along with the facilitation of justice efforts. We’ve seen negative examples, too: after Rwanda’s genocide, especially, it seems like the headlines about every African conflict now ask about their “tribal” roots, and I don’t think that encouraging people to compare every conflict to “that one from that movie” is a good thing. But to the extent that films, etc raise actual awareness and don’t just encourage stereotypes, they can have positive effects.

    Which brings us to the question of international aid. You note that foreign aid has poured into Cambodia for the last few decades (something that’s also true for Rwanda). I get the sense that giving aid to postconflict states is so common because it seems like a chance for wealthy countries to address societies seriously in need, yes, but also to work with blank slates. The problem here is that postconflict societies have all sorts of issues relating to leadership. Who is in charge of the aid? Just as we see in Rwanda, it’s exactly the sort of situation where Western countries can find themselves supporting rather problematic rulers. While I generally support international involvement in justice institutions (and in elections, when issues are predicted), I don’t think that jumping in and supporting regimes that step up post-conflict is always necessarily a great idea for the international community.

  2. gracen0te5 March 14, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    The Oscars serve as a perfect platform for social change. If a high-scale event like the Oscars can produce a selfie with 3.3 million retweets, I think that there is potential that performance and documentary arts can bring transitional justice awareness further into Cambodia. This could be through widespread and real-time television coverage, and even Government-controlled channels, increased funding for NGOs and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to revamp outreach and memorialization efforts which have lost funding, improved transparency of the ECCC, and further monitoring of work on the tribunal to ensure accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The cash-strapped conditions of the tribunal since it was set up in 2006 makes it difficult to find justice for the deaths of up to two million people under the communist regime. The Tribunals have not shown significant role in the country’s progress. That is why the arts are so powerful in engaging support and gaining leverage. It brings in exposure as well as justice and healing to the Cambodian people.

    Approximately half the film uses news and documentary footage, while the other half uses clay figurines to dramatize what happened in Cambodia and within Rithy Panh’s family when Pol Pot came to power. Although it did not win the Oscars, the documentary brought light to Cambodia. It is the country’s first Oscar nomination and is one of the lesser traditional entries at the Oscars. Rithy Panh creatively shares his testimony and uses the film to bring “peace of mind” to the next generation. This goes a long way. I think the intentions of what goes into film-making speak loudly in the messages filmmakers try to capture. I think Panh had high intention to ensure accountability for war crimes through his film, and he understands that politics and government alone will not help him achieve that.

    There is a lack of knowledge about the current status of the trial of the two senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. Rithy Panh expresses that he is angry with the people in the [Khmer Rouge] tribunal because they do not talk about the intention of the genocide and explains that people “cannot understand genocide if [they] do not work on intention.”

    Panh’s narration contemplates the sad fact that filmed material from the 1975-79 period were pure propaganda, glorifying Pol Pot. Panh’s film is a form of powerful resistance and strength to motivate viewers to acknowledge a part of history that may have been otherwise left unseen. His films are made in French, so by allowing his testimony to span other countries, this international reach allows Panh to expand Cambodian film and arts. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, musicians were subjected to extreme forms of censorship, including death, but since then, filmmakers like Panh figured out ways to bring in modern criticism without losing traditional elements.

    I think that the arts, more than government, has potential to share more creative testimony, bring out intentional messages, encourage more international involvement, and make more forward steps for Cambodia. The arts seem to act as a hybrid justice mechanism by bringing in characteristics of informal and formal mechanisms, starting out as individual and community-based projects and then, hopefully, being integrated in part to the judiciary and formal structures of restoring justice and awareness for those affected by Khmer Rouge.

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