The French-schooled director's films focus on the aftermath of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Rithy Panh's works are from an authoritative viewpoint, because his family were expelled from Phnom Penh in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. 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.
His family and other residents were expelled from the Cambodian capital in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. 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 become interested in filmmaking. 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 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.