Staring down the horrors of the Khmer Rouge

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PHNOM PENH -- Ever since his 1994 movie "Rice People" introduced a Cambodian voice to world cinema, the director Rithy Panh has become the conscience of a nation still haunted by the tragedy of its recent past. "From the beginning I knew my work would focus on the problems in my country," Panh said. "It's been 26 years since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, yet we still don't fully understand why we were forced to live through these horrors."

Having lost many of his relatives to the terror, during which 1.7 million people died, Panh, 42, has returned repeatedly to the personal dramas of national decimation. "Un Soir Après La Guerre" (1998), a feature set among the detritus of postwar Phnom Penh, charts the attempts of a returning soldier to forge a new life in a decimated moral and physical landscape.

The documentary "Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy" (1996) tells the story of a couple separated and fatally tortured at S21, the regime's notorious detention center in Phnom Penh. Panh uses the victims' love letters and extracted confessions as voiceover. "When shall we two meet again," writes Sothy to his wife in a touching misquote of Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

The same high school-turned-torture center is the subject of Panh's multi-award-winning "S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine" (2003)...

"Most of those men still don't understand how they became killers," Panh said. "It's not simply a question of judgment. We need to find answers to these questions."

Pol Pot is dead, but so far not a single person has been tried or convicted for crimes committed during that period. Panh welcomes the upcoming UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge trial, but shares his compatriots' skepticism.

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