The French-schooled director, Rithy Panh's films focus on the aftermath of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. His works are from an authoritative viewpoint, because the Khmer Rouge expelled his family from Phnom Penh in 1975. One after another, his father, mother, sisters and nephews died of starvation or exhaustion, as they were held in a remote labor camp in rural Cambodia. Rithy Panh was born in Phnom Penh. His father was a school teacher and inspector of primary schools.
The Khmer Rouge expelled his family and other residents from the Cambodian capital in 1975. Rithy's family suffered under the regime, and after he saw his parents, siblings and other relatives die of overwork or malnutrition, Rithy escaped to Thailand in 1979, where he lived for a time in a refugee camp at Mairut.
Eventually, he made his way to Paris, France. It was while he was attending vocational school to learn carpentry that he was handed a video camera during a party that he became interested in film-making. He went on to graduate from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for the Advanced Cinematographic Studies). He returned to Cambodia in 1990, while still using Paris as a home base.
His first documentary feature film, Site 2, about a family of Cambodian refugees in a camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s, was awarded "Grand Prix du Documentaire" at the Festival of Amiens.
His 1994 film, Rice People, is told in a docudrama style, about a rural family struggling with life in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. It was in competition at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, and was submitted to the 67th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, the first time a Cambodian film had been submitted for an Oscar.
The 2000 documentary, “The Land of the Wandering Souls”, also told of a family's struggle, as well as showing a Cambodia entering the modern age, chronicling the hardships of workers digging a cross-country trench for Cambodia's first optical fiber cable.
His 2003 documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng prison, reunited former prisoners, including the artist Vann Nath, and their former captors, for a chilling, confrontational review of Cambodia's violent history.
More post-Khmer Rouge events are documented in the 2005 drama, The Burnt Theatre, which focuses on a theater troupe that inhabits the burned-out remains of Phnom Pehn's Suramet Theatre, which caught fire in 1994 but has never been rebuilt.
His 2007 documentary, Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, delves into the lives of prostitutes in Phnom Penh.
The 2012 documentary, Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, is about interviews with Kang Guek Eav, a former leader in the Khmer Rouge, also known as Duch, tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and sentenced to 30 years of prison, but appealing against the conviction. However, he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment after the appeal.
His 2013 documentary film The Missing Picture was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festiva where it won the top prize.
Rithy, along with director Leu Pannakar, has developed Bophana: Audio Visual Resource Center – Cambodia, with an aim towards preserving the country's film, photographic and audio history. The center's namesake is the subject of one of his early docudramas, Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy, about a young woman who was tortured and killed at S-21 prison.