While his friends and colleagues huddled around a TV watching the Oscar nominations unfurl live on CNN yesterday morning, Cambodian director Rithy Panh says the anticipation became too much for him. "I just fled my office to go for a walk on the streets here in Phnom Penh," he told THR by phone from Cambodia Friday. "A few minutes later everyone started [texting] me with the good news."
VIDEO: 'The Missing Picture' Trailer
Panh's A Missing Picture, which also won the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, is Cambodia's first film to be nominated for an Oscar. An inventive and profoundly personal piece of work, the film mixes archival war footage with set pieces constructed from intricate clay figurines depicting Panh and his family's plight during the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, which claimed the lives of the director's entire family before he narrowly escaped to Thailand, and later France, where he discovered filmmaking. The film's narration -- which shifts from historical accounts, to personal recollections, to philosophical attempts to come to grips with the nature of genocide -- was written by Panh but voiced by French mathematician Randal Douc.
"Of course, I'm happy for myself and my film," Panh said of his nomination. "But I'm much happier for the young people here in Cambodia. Something like 70 percent of our film community is under 30 years old -- and they feel proud. We have faced many difficulties in Cambodia, but sometimes good news like this can bring a fresh perspective, and show young artists that there is a path [for] bringing their vision to the world."
STORY: Cambodia's Rithy Panh on His Cannes Winner 'The Missing Picture' (Q&A)
News of Panh's nomination made the front page of Cambodian local news papers, including the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily.
Marveling at the sweep of his life, Panh added: "It's been a very long journey. From my childhood experiences with the Khmer Rouge, to learning cinema in France, and now, getting nominated for the Oscars – well, it's good. It shows the people of Cambodia that you have the possibility to express your feelings and point of view, that you can look at your own history -- and even if it is terrible -- you can face it, and you can film it, and claim your dignity back."
While Panh is been a regular at Cannes, he said he's nothing but excited about hitting the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the first time on March 2.
"I'm curious to see what the big Oscar show is all about," he said, laughing. "How interesting it will be."