CuSPP Seminar Series 2022 - Smoke and Mirrors: Sex Work and Rithy Panh's Cinematic Image

Smoke and Mirrors: Sex Work and Rithy Panh’s Cinematic Image

This seminar examines the narrative authority of the sex worker in Rithy Panh’s Un Soir après la guerre (1998) and Le Papier ne peut pas envelopper la braise (2007), two films that counter the discourses surrounding sex work with the voices and lived experiences of individual sex workers. When read together, the feature and the documentary question the divide and hierarchy between fiction and nonfiction, both in terms of genre distinctions and in relation to the subject of each film: the reality and representation of sex work. Drawing on theories of cinema as window and mirror and developing Panh’s use of windows and mirrors in each film, I argue that Panh’s cinematic image of sex work challenges the assumption of a ‘transparent’ relationship between the cinematic production and the profilmic event, undoing the presumed links between perception, action, and effect. The extent to which this image upsets filmic norms and ‘epistephilic’ desire, that is, the desire on the part of the viewer to know and to connect knowing with acting, is evidenced in the films’ critical and popular reception, which reveals an ongoing discomfort before the sex worker who speaks for herself.


Leslie Barnes is Associate Professor of French Studies at ANU. She is author of Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature (Nebraska, 2014) and co-editor of The Cinema of Rithy Panh: Everything Has a Soul (Rutgers, 2021). Her current project studies literary and cinematic narratives that engage with questions of sex work, mobility, and human rights in Southeast Asia. She has published on these and other subjects in Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Modern Language Notes, and Humanity.

Date & time

Thu 24 Feb 2022, 4.30–6pm


Conference Room #128, AD Hope Building, Australian National University


Associate Professor Leslie Barnes, ANU


Russell Smith


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