Fragments in the Archive: The Khmer Rouge Years


Cambodia’s cinema history is strange and surprising. Popular films from France and the United States circulated through the Kingdom during the French colonial period. The 1950s and 60s saw extensive local production with the enthusiastic support of King Norodom Sihanouk, himself a passionate film-maker, but the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) destroyed most of the existing material, including hundreds of feature films, raw footage and countless other ephemeral documents. In 2006, after representations by film-maker Rithy Panh and others, the Bophana Audio-Visual Research Centre was established in Phnom Penh to comb the world for every fragment of film and audio material relating to Cambodia’s history in order to reproduce it in an accessible digitized form. The archival preservation and duplication has continued apace. However the ethical use of these materials presents challenges. Contemporary documentary makers and digital enthusiasts frequently use fragmentary footage to support their political or historical interpretations without attribution or context. This paper discusses a propaganda film featuring the former King Norodom Sihanouk and his wife Monique shot in 1973 in collaboration with the Communist Chinese, the North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge. Short scenes and extracts from this film circulate online and appear in many documentaries. The “archive effect” of this footage raises questions about the source and circulation of archival images with significant historical and political consequences.