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.
Monday, May 12, 2014
20 years ago, I saw Rithy Panh´s first fiction film Neak Sre (The Rice Field, 1994) in a film theatre. This film about a family tragedy of Cambodian rice farmers ends with one of the most elegiac scenes I can remember from the cinema of the 90s, a final which you saw in this decade only in the films by Hou Hsiao Hsien: The mother in this film looses her mind after the dead of her husband. Long time held in a cage, the daughter frees her at the end of the film. In a an endless long and endless sad shot we see her walking into the depth of the image. When the light finally fades out for the black background of the credits, there is a simple dedication in French to Rithy Panh´s family.
This moment is burnt in my memory even though my knowledge of Cambodian history was few or how Rithy Panh was part of it, I could not know at that time. The emotional impact this moment had on me was a very complex one. One aspect was (just after learning a few and fragmentary details about Rithy Panh was the strong feeling that he might have lost his family during the terror regime of the Red Khmer. The other aspect was that it reminds me in the famous ending scenes of some films by Hou Hsiao Hsien. I refer to these elagiac "farewells" from a cinematic world in which we have dived in deeply for 2 hours and which we finally have to leave.
20 years later, the last Good Friday I watched finally his most recent film L´Image Manquante. I was shocked how close I was with my strong feeling to the fate of his family. In the last 5 or 6 years, I am obsessed with explicit autobiographical inspired films if the fictional ones by Anjan Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak and Terrence Malick or the documentary essays by Yang Yonghi, Patricio Guzman, or Paramita Das. As Rithy Panh says in his new film “at the middle of my life, childhood comes back”, this , my obsession for these "songs about themselves" (Niles Schwartz) goes hand in hand with my own memories.
As I suggested in my most recent text on all these mentioned film maker, cinema is not always a showing, a presenting of images but often a sharing art how I should define a "personal film".
That does not mean that I betray my old idols with whom my knowledge and understanding of cinema grew over the years neither does it mean that I am less moved by a film by Ozu, Ford, Hou, Renoir or Yamada. But between me and these masters will always be their art, this magic performing of their art. If their films hit me too close, I still can escape in my admiration of their using this mighty apparatus of image making and even if they hit me too strong I can still sell my writing on them as my cultivation. The impact a film like L´Image Manquante by Rithy Panh has on me like the films by all those I mentioned before hit me direct, cut through my so-called cinephile cultivation like a knife through soft butter.
Influenced by the impact these films from Rithy Panh, Yang Yonghi, Terrence Malick or Ritwik Ghatak had on me I call it a paradox that these films are made with the same apparatus an Ozu, a Renoir or Hitchcock made their films but this apparatus seems to vanish in front of my eyes.
I know that Rithy Panh reconstructs in L´Image Manquante his childhood before the Red Khmer and his time in the concentration camps and later the “Killing Fields” with the help of formed and painted clay puppets to give memories the matter which is obligatory for making it visible in cinema. That might be actually an artificial method to create an image which does not exist in any photographic or cinematic form but is hidden in the body and soul of Rithy Panh.
The official images made at this period in the history of Cambodia do not include the history of Rithy Panh and his family that died through famine and exhaustion. The millions of victims of this genocide became to the nameless skeletons and skulls. At least until now only a few photographic or cinematic documents are found like we know them for example about the german Holocaust.
In one short excerpt of a documentary made during the Red Khmer period aspects of the reality was revealed, worn out bodies of children, a single and short moment of truth about this new Cambodia. If filmed on purpose or if it was just a result of being not cautious - we will never know. This cinematographer, tells Panh, was tortured and finally executed.
At the beginning we see a hand who begins to grave puppets out of clay and later we see a hand who paints them faces, hairs and clothes. One movement of this film is a re creation of lifetime which is lost, memories without any evidence like family photos. I have to open just a photo album to get an idea about the time I lived as a child, Rithy Panh, just the same age than my youngest brother has to work like an archaeologist or an anthropologist to visualize his early childhood for the public.
What moved me deepest is that L´Image Manquante founds images about an old and perverse phenomenon of injustice in history. The strange irrational feeling of shame of a child that feels guilty because he survived all his beloved ones and at the same time there are still people and mostly perpetrators who deny their infamous actions. A sad phenomenon which goes from victims of rape or child abuse until surviving victims of genocides. But the hidden truth of history, the truth about the nameless victims who suffered history lies in these millions of skeletons and skulls.
Sometimes the waves of the sea bluster aggressively towards the camera and our eyes. These are as well scaring moments like the sea will gulp us and with us the camera which collects evidence of human existence.
Like Patricio Guzman´s Nostalgia de la Luz, L´Image Manquante creates a dynamic relationship between being a historic document and at the same time a radical personal elegy. Like Guzman who escaped his certain execution by the Pinochet dictatorship only with a lot of luck, Panh as well escaped his certain death in the killing fields by a hair. Both films are not just made about victims of history but they are made obviously by victims of history.
The film reminds me in some moments in Art Spiegelman´s autobiographical graphic novel on the Holocaust Maus one of the most moving achievement to handle the Holocaust as a dark chapter in human history but as well as a personal drama.
Long after the film is finished I still see this strange clay puppets looking at me, the ones which embody the dying beloved ones of Rithy Panh and the one who embodies him as boy. The reconstructed memories of traces of a happy childhood and soon the memories of agony and death. These are moments when I don´t see anything else than memories of a disturbed and abused child. There are no words for that strange emotion caused by a film and caused by puppets of clay. It is probably Rithy Panh´s most personal film and in its fragility close to the three autobiographical films by Yang Yonghi.