Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Notes on Irradiés (Irradiated) by Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France: 2020-BerlinFilmfestival2020 IX.-Competition

At the first sight, the new film by Rithy Panh seems to be his most abstract work, rather a film essay than a documentary. Among so much other things, the film is a triptych, the cinema scope format is divided in three frames. The three frames reveal mostly archive footage of the most barbaric events of the 20th. Century. Some critics compared it with an art installation. I prefer to call it a reversion of the technics used in Abel Gance´s Napoleon or the short lived Cinerama-format invented to make cinema even more spectacular. In Panh´s film, this triptych is a flickering, disturbing flood of images. It is not about the wonders of cinema, but its hell. Mostly poetic texts are spoken as voice over. The relationship between text and image reminds me in some films by Marguerite Duras or Jean-Luc Godard.
tried to shake the images away like a nightmare. But when I close my eyes, I still feel the images are still there just waiting to come back to my mind in the most displeasing moment.

The history of mankind especially the 20th. Century is revealed as an accumulation of genocide, wars and the increasing perfection of weapons, especially bombs, from the poisoned gas in world war I to the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima. Vivisections and experiments with always more “perfect” tools for mass killings. There are permanent cross-fadings between the very specific genocides of the German Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the first atomic bombs or the area-wide shellfire in the American-Vietnamese war or other bombings during world war II. Opposite to some reviews on this film – I am sure that Panh understands the specific differences of these different genocides and mass killings. The common link between them is what Panh calls an abstractness of evil: the extinction of a whole city at the push of a button of a pilot, the frenzied fussy bureaucracy of the Nazis in the extermination camps.
It is an evil which literally wants the people dead. And Rithy Panh knows exactly about what he is telling about. The corps, bones and skulls of the victims of German concentration camps or Cambodian death camps are shown. Sometimes only ashes is left as human remains. Panh´s film tells about the contempt towards human life but as well about the annihilation of identities, whole families where no one is left to remember the dead. If something is left than a name on a list.

Sometimes we see a solar eruption, an amount of energy which can destroy the whole earth. It is a natural event which was imitated by man for no other reason than destruction.
It is true, Irradiés is a film on the limit of what and how one can reveal this horror in a film, of what and how ist still bearable for the spectator. But behind this composition of images and sounds, behind the archive footage and its artistic reworking – there remains something unfathomable.
We see a Butoh-dancer with a ghostly painted face like an exemplary ghost among the uncountable victims. The dead remain silent, some of them are already forgotten. Only through imagination the film can give them a voice.
Before we can judge or criticize this film as an imposition, we have to accept that this dark and often apocalyptic vision is a poem of pain and horror by a filmmaker who was very close to become one these nameless victims. Rithy Panh had a lot of talks with survivors of different genocides, if Cambodians or Holocaust survivors. One of them was director, scriptwriter and actress Mrs. Marceline Loridan (1928-2018), a Holocaust survivor and the wife of late Joris Ivens. They all encouraged Rithy Panh with his film project.

Like Ritwik Ghatak and Patricio Guzman, Rithy Panh is a filmmaker whose work is dealing with history he has suffered himself. For Ghatak it was the partition of Bengal which remained a personal trauma until his death, Guzman could escape the Pinochet-regime only by a hair while a lot of his loved ones and friends where tortured and killed. Panh himself witnessed his whole family dying in one of these death camps and only with luck he could escape as a teenager to Thailand. These filmmaker are also telling about the profound personal sufferings under their history. One of Panh´s most personal films, L´Image manquante is as well his most autobiographic film. With Irradiés he tried to put this specific trauma of Cambodian history in the context of the darkest chapters in the 20th. Century.

In this sense, Irradiés is not a cinematic imposition but the survey of a deeply injured soul and a brave confrontation with the darkest chapters of human civilization. Panh´s cinematic point of view is one which points out the importance cinema as a collective memory, that includes both, the personal memory in the loved ones he has lost but also in the “abstract evil” of the genocides in the 20th. Century. The fact that there are still deniers of these different genocides confirms the importance of this “collective memory”.

And yes, the film is hard to bear and yes, the film can cause pain and nightmares but it should be appreciated as an important work of mourning and an accomplishment of historic traumata. With this film Panh shares a lot with us and even challenges our empathy with less than 90 minutes. With the films by Rithy Panh we either learn to see history from the perspective of the victims or we do not understand history at all.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Monday, March 2, 2020

Notes on La Deésesse des Mouches À Feu (Goddess of the Fireflies), by Anaȉs Barbeau Lavalette, Canada: 2020-BerlinFilmfestival VIII.-Generation14plus

Like Indian cinema, the “Cinéma Québecois” is another highly neglected film region which is given almost regularly space by this wonderful festival section.
At the beginning, I totally forgot that the film takes place in the 1990s, the time when I visited Quebec very frequently, connected to this francophone region through several friendships. Just this beautiful French-Canadian accent brings always back some memories. The 1990s was as well the time of some referendums for the Independence of Québec from the Canadian union. The turbulent history of Northern America´s only francophone province caused a lot of of insecurity especially among young people. Some of the friends I had were only a few years older than the protagonists in this film, just one generation away from these young people in the film.

The main character Cat, a teenage girl goes through a turbulent change. Her parents are going to divorce. And family, often in films and stories a place of protection is here in decay. She looks for protection and shelter in her circle of friends – and unfortunately in the excessive use of drugs. I am not sure at what place the film takes place, but I would suggest it is one of the smaller cities outside the big urban areas of Montréal or Québec City. The amazing breathtaking landscape appears relatively seldom in the images of this film, they seem to be faded out from the film and probably as well from the awareness of the young protagonists. Sometimes they resemble hamsters in the rat race. They try to free themselves as well from the expectations the mostly dysfunctional parents have in them. They try to replace the need for shelter or the need to leave this “rat race with drugs. But drugs consumes their young and wild life energy, and if not it turns into a destructive power and even more isolation from the world around them, this world they do no seem to see or want to deal with. In their actions, parties, music, sex and drugs, their bodies appear as force fields. Even though there are a few moments in which I had wished a bit less voyeurism – Lavalette finds often very intense images for that. Sometimes bodies are clamped at each other in lust, tenderness or ecstasy. There are a few moments of rough violence like in a beating scene between Cat and another girl.
The camera is mostly very close and sometimes it reveals a tangle of blurring shapes and colours, an interesting and non human cinematic perception. The film becomes a too fast rotating Laterna Magica always in danger to be overheated and always in danger to bust. In these moments we perceive the bodies of these young people rather as a spectacular cosmic event with all its chemical and physical reactions. The film often emphasizes the movement of the film between revealing the young peoples enormous power but also their fragility.

Cat is a bit like Ruth in François Delisle´s film (Ruth, 1994) who is also full of rough and untamed energy but who is at the same time frail.
The poetic title “Goddess of the Fireflies” seems to have something to do with a last desperate shining before the end, if a human life or another natural event. When the film has extended its cinematic energy, a deep melancholy is all what remains. The very popular song Voyage, Voyage by Desireless (which used to go on my nerves) is here covered in a very slow and very melancholic version, the pop song is almost altered into a requiem. No film, Rithy Panh´s apocalyptic masterpiece Irradiés included, at this year´s Berlinale left me with such an amount of exhaustion and sadness. Lavalette´s film is neither beautiful, not always very eloquent - but it makes up for this with an emotional power and an aching sincerity.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Notes on Sweet Thing by Alexandre Rockwell, USA: 2020-Berlin Filmfestival VII.-Generationkplus

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst (Sweet Thing, Van Morrison)

Considering the synopsis in the festival catalogue, I did not really expect that this film can make me happy.
The adolescent girl Billie (they named her after Billie Holiday) lives together with her little brother Nico and her alcohol addict father. The mother left them and lives with another man. Yes, it really sounds like a colportage and one of these social dramas about the poorest class. But very soon, one learns that the film is made by a man who is deeply in love with cinema, and this love is boundless. Billie, Nico and their friend Malik might live on the edge between poverty and total waywardness. But after a while, we learn that Rockwell´s film is at all a protected zone, filled with fairytale-like wonders. The film´s Black and White images, (except some dream,- or memory moments are coloured) shields these kids. Billie and Nico- by the way – are played by Rockwells own children Lana and Nico Rockwell.

Sometimes it is a bit like Hansel and Gretel until the new friend Malik (hard to believe this name is accidental) crossed their way and helps them to deal with their abandoning mother the mother´s lover who is abusing the kids and the mother likewise. The father is kind hearted but totally lost in his addiction. He finally goes to a hospital for a withdrawal treatment. The kids are now abandoned by their loved ones.

The film is filled with quotations from different film genres: horror, film noir, action, slapstick – and yes as well a bit of Italian Neorealism. Yes, and there is also a cinematic greeting to Terrence Malick´s Badlands. But like a shield, most of the violence in these genres are blocked like by a shield. And Rockwells play with quotations, cliches is more than refreshing and never tiring. Sweet Thing is not as much a film but like we dream a film for ourself composed of so many films we fell for. And this declaration of love for cinema is very virulent and I could not hesitate to fell for his film.

Despite the film deals with characters whose life is at the edges of society, the film never wallows itself in the kids misery. The director is here as well the adventurous but loving father who invites his children (and us) through a tour through the realm of cinema. I was not sure at the beginning, but after a while I was confident that I leave the film theatre much happier than I entered it. The only thing I was never sure about is – if this is a film or am I just dreaming.
Yes, it is a homage to cinema and Billie Holiday – but as well to one of the most beautiful songs of the 1960s, Sweet Thing by Van Morrison from his legendary album Astral Weeks, which I listen for more than 40 years.What a joy to hear this wonderful song at the first time in a film! When Billie/Lana Rockwell covers this song several times in this film, I am literally in heaven.
The film takes place around Christmas time and indeed it has quite a cluster of little gifts to offer and with a big lucky bag, the film is probably described in the best way. It is almost defiant how all this evil like racism, social injustice just rebounds from the protection shield against all evil the film finally is.
I attended the world premiere at the Urania in Berlin which was full packed and the screening was in the sense of another song by Van Morrison literally a “Healing Game.” Cinema as a collective and in this case joyful experience – that is during the Berlin Filmfestival only possible in this Generation-section. How else should we celebrate Sweet Thing by Alexandre Rockwell than with a song by Van Morrison or Billie Holiday.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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