Saturday, June 22, 2024

“MEETING WITH POL POT”

THE STORY – 1978. Cambodia, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, has been under the rule of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge for three years. The country is economically devastated and nearly 2 million Cambodians died during an as-yet unspoken genocide. Three French people have accepted the regime’s invitation in hopes to get an exclusive interview with Pol Pot – a reporter who’s familiar with the country, a photojournalist and an intellectual who feels close to the revolutionary ideology. But as they find out a different reality behind the propaganda and get special treatment by the regime, all their convictions are gradually being turned upside down.

THE CAST – Irène Jacob, Grégoire Colin, Cyril Gueï, Bunhok Lim & Somaline Mao

THE TEAM – Rithy Panh (Director/Writer), Pierre Erwan Guillaume & Elizabeth Becker (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 113 Minutes


Cambodian director Rithy Panh is a filmmaker who has earned an audience. Few directors have committed themselves to telling and retelling a particular story. It helps that his story is an important and devastating one with significant historical value. The four-year experiment that was the Khmer Rouge dictatorship was bloodsoaked beyond comprehension, when the authoritarian regime massacred two million of its own people (a quarter of the country’s population at the time), including Panh’s parents and extended family members. After having escaped and been trained as a filmmaker, he has brought the story of this horrendous time to life in numerous documentaries, most notably 2013’s “The Missing Picture,” a novel blend of archival footage and recreations in clay models that earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. With “Meeting With Pol Pot,” the director merges his previous modus operandi with a more conventional narrative approach, telling a story of Cambodia from an outsider’s perspective. This does mean that some urgency is sacrificed in the name of accessibility, but the basic storytelling urge and need to represent the horrors of history remain firmly in place.

Despite directing a narrative feature, Panh’s priority is still in documenting history. The fact that his film is not based on a specific true story is proof of this. Here, Panh collaborates with French screenwriter Pierre Erwan Guillaume to create a story based on the experiences of Elizabeth Becker – who detailed interviewing Pol Pot in 1978 in her book “When The War Was Over.” The writers of “Meeting With Pol Pot” have changed many details, and the film is centered on three French journalists (played by Irène Jacob, Grégoire Colin, and Cyril Gueï), who are invited to Cambodia in 1976 to interview Brother No. 1. Panh has ensured that the changes made to the real story are not flippant. Colin’s Cariou claims a friendship with Pol Pot from his days in Paris, and is inspired by Marxist academic Malcolm Caldwell. Cariou represents an academic defense of Marxism, as Panh depicts external points of view that can allow such a brutal regime to emerge unchallenged.

Jacob’s Lise is a tribute to Becker, and stands out as the most resistant to the strict script the Cambodian representatives feed her and her colleagues. As the journalists settle into/are locked into their lodgings, they are kept in situ by their hosts, first by means of flattery and gifts, then slowly morphing into deception and outright threats. As the face of the Khmer, Bun Hok Lim’s government representative is increasingly and impressively creepy. When contact with the outside world arrives, it is a result of Gueï’s photographer Paul slipping out and photographing the suffering of the people nearby. When he finds the bones of the dead or starving children, Panh cuts in either real newsreel footage of the real events or uses clay model dioramas (à la “The Missing Picture”) to illustrate the point without needing to recreate them using actors. It’s a tasteful move, full of respect and humility. Panh knows no representation can do the real events justice, so he has chosen to either be novel or entirely upfront.

As time goes on, and there’s no sign of Pol Pot being interviewed, the three journalists are confronted with choices that are likely to end badly. There is plenty of tension, though it is hard to muster much concern when things inevitably go awry, especially when we’ve already seen so much horror. Then again, that just might be Panh’s point: The three get to experience the slow trudge towards an inevitable messy end that has befallen the rest of the country, and that is a greater takeaway than any puff-piece interview they could have had. If “Meeting With Pol Pot” doesn’t quite have the urgency or sense of tragedy of Panh’s best work, it does fulfill its basic remit of conveying the terrors at work behind the public image. 

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The performances are solid, and Panh does a fine job of recreating the fear and repression at work under the Khmer Rouge.

THE BAD - The pace lags as it goes on, and it feels more like an academic history lesson than a full-on exploration of real horror.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best International Feature

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The performances are solid, and Panh does a fine job of recreating the fear and repression at work under the Khmer Rouge.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The pace lags as it goes on, and it feels more like an academic history lesson than a full-on exploration of real horror.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-international-feature/">Best International Feature</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"MEETING WITH POL POT"