Culture is future »


The digital space is a change for global democracy, by Rithy Panh

« The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes » declared Stanley Kubrick.

Despite my admiration for this great film director, I hope that he was wrong, or not fully right, in his caricature of the inevitable balance of power between rich and poor countries and that we can still hope for the possibility of a fair exchange, at least at the cultural level.


“Cultural diversity”, “Culture and development”, “Culture is the nation’s soul” … Many beautiful expressions are echoed by the leaders of the entire world. They embody humanism and hope for a better society, which would not be led only by the logic of economic profit. They symbolize the commitment of the peoples to these universal values, but they unfortunately do not show their implementation.

The digital revolution, by changing the access to information and the communication modes, developed a culture for exchange and freedom of expression, which is in itself an act of resistance in many countries. The recent news showed the power of the social networks in terms of spreading ideas. For a country like Cambodia, the access to the digital world democratizes the access to knowledge: books are rare and expensive, libraries are empty, cinemas are destroyed, televisions are depressing … But with internet, the young people filled with a click the cultural gap and entered in the worlds of fashion, music and ways of thinking of their generation.

This openness and this freedom obviously have their drawbacks and dangers, and the “digital fracture” will not only exist between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. The computer material has become a mass consumption product, even in the poor countries.

The real fracture will exist between those who will know how to select the information, check it, organize it, use it as a real tool of knowledge, and those who will not be able to do so. We already notice the ravages of the totalitarian or extremist ideologies which find adepts on the internet, more particularly among marginalized people.

We do not measure yet, in a country like Cambodia, the social, economic and cultural changes created by the “internet culture”. In a society still convalescent from its history, the cultural reference points are failing and often come down to a contracted rigidity around old principles we do not know where they come from.  It is very difficult to stand for the new generations, who do not want to respect a familial hierarchy which would like to decide on their like and orientations. But this is also true for what concerns the organization of the society, relying on a “mandarinal” system where the leaders of clans have all the wealth, because of the redistribution they give their followers.

Internet and all the tools it develops is a tool of freedom. But freedom must be gained. To avoid the fake prophets and the mirages of consumption, we must know its proper value. We must know who we are, where we come from and where we want to go. Being aware of our values and being able to pass them on.

I was in this state of mind when I created the Bophana center of Phnom Penh: a resource center dedicated to the memory and audiovisual creation.

The project was born in Cambodia. We fight for the “right to memory”, the access to culture and the necessity to pass on knowledge and skills. The digital technology naturally appeared as the ideal tool to reach those goals. It is not about collecting and digitizing, but also about production and creation. From the classic documentary, we went to the web-doc and we are currently building a project which will enable to federate filmmakers from all over the world around a common theme.

Our project is living. Thousands of people came to visit Bophana. Projections are organized in the provincial towns. Exhibitions succeed each other. The weekly programming of our cinema alternates with lectures given by academics and artists. Movies produced by Bophana have been nominated in festivals and some of them got awards. Without enumerating all our missions, one of our biggest satisfactions is the request some filmmakers did to us and the fact that we helped them to carry out similar projects in their own countries…

But despite all those successes, despite our efforts of autofinancing and independence of the Bophana center, I may have to take the hardest decision of my life: closing Bophana because we lack financial support.

Victor Hugo wrote “The invention of printing is the biggest event of History. It is the first revolution. It is humanity’s expression mode renewed, this I human thought which gives up on a form and adopts another, it is the complete and definitive metamorphosis of this symbolic snake which, since Adam, represents intelligence” (Notre Dame de Paris).

What would he have thought about internet?

For a country like Cambodia, the great digital transformation represents a chance to take part in this new global thought, as an actor and not as a simple consumer. We have the technical means to do it. The institutions have to defend the right of expression against the purely commercial logic of giants, which are tempted to privatize the access to knowledge. We claim that we want to participate in the elaboration of a global thought, not a globalized one. That is a thought open on the infinite richness of the diversity of the peoples and cultures, unlike a unique thought, tool of domination for the most prosperous civilizations.

I have never seen the colonization and I have no inhibition about it. But I do not want to revive the past, the time when our grandparents did not have the right to touché the camera, they only had the right to be filmed by colonial filmmakers full of prejudices and not knowing about the cultures.

Concerning the audiovisual testimony of the poor countries, how many movies, recordings, photographs are disappearing through lack of resources to digitize them? Through these traces, how many traditions and oral stories, our collective heritage erased forever?

As for the images and sounds kept in the developed countries, the poorest cannot have access to them. Could not we imagine a universal right to consult them, accessible to everyone?

The powerful talk about copyrights, the leaders of poor countries do not care about memory, all only think about culture in economic terms and not as a collective right.

In view of the collapse of memory, the doors often remain closed…

The digital space is a chance for the global democracy. We must be careful to defend this space of freedom and exchange, and continue to believe in this collective adventure without forgetting anyone.

And so, there would not be any gangsters, nor prostitutes in this world anymore.


A contribution of Rithy Panh,

Filmmakers and founder of the Bophana Center