Cambodian-born filmmaker Rithy Panh once again holds up a mirror to his life under the Khmer Rouge in “Exile,” a free-flowing essay film in which he reflects on his experiences between 1975 and 1979, when he was forced from the capital of Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s dictatorship. Much of his family died under the regime. Not as accessible, narrative-driven, or provocatively fanciful as Panh’s Oscar-nominated “The Missing Picture” — which re-enacted the story using clay figurines (and won the top prize at Un Certain Regard in 2013) — “Exile” is an altogether more cerebral piece of work, using quotations from Mao, Baudelaire and others to unpack the nature of revolutionary ideology and to explore the gap between Panh’s understandings as a teenager and his perceptions now. It’s must-get programming for venues and festivals that regularly show Chris Marker–style experimental docs, and perhaps for museums. (Whether or not these are Panh’s wishes for it, the movie could easily play as an installation.)
“I experienced exile more intensely than childhood,” says the film’s narrator, who is meant to represent Panh but is not identified formally until the end. The voiceover is read by Randal Douc, while a lone actor, Sang Nan, appears throughout on what look like soundstage sets. The narrator reflects on what it was like to spend adolescence devoted to a single idea — the Kampuchean Revolution — and how slogans that once seemed beautiful to him no longer do. Ghostly visuals contribute to the sense of disorientation and the feeling of time standing still. In some shots, Nan is superimposed over himself; in others, he floats in the air. The ambient drone of Marc Marder’s score helps to create a meditative mood, to slightly lulling effect.
To the extent that “Exile” has a main setting, it’s a single hut whose contents — luggage, a typewriter, fans — change, and gather dust over the years. During discussions of famine, we see a rat being cooked on a bonfire and hear anecdotal mention of men who prized their spoons above their wives. These staged scenes are interspersed with the regime’s propagandized archival footage (“The Missing Picture” hinged on the lack of real photographs), often intercut in counterintuitive or arty ways. In one bit, we see hands wave red books in front of a black-and-white reel. Movies flicker in a bowl of water. Moon imagery increases the sense that the story is being told from a cosmic remove. Some of the most poignant visuals show the hut filled with imagined clothing or family photos on the wall disappearing.
Content-wise, “Exile” is more abstract and arcane than “The Missing Picture.” The narration concerns such ideas as the way that revolutionary ideology feeds on itself, thriving on routine and turning humans into machines. Because what we see is generally meant to represent a single person’s mindscape, the movie avoids some of the representational issues posed by “The Missing Picture,” whose figurines juxtaposed a discomfiting charm against a backdrop of genocide.
At 77 minutes, “Exile” is clearly a specialty item that will probably be received as a footnote to that earlier film. But it is essential to those who have followed Panh’s documentaries.