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Having waded into explicitly political territory with France Is Our Mother Country (2015) and Exile (2016), Rithy Panh picks up where his Oscar-nominated 2013 feature The Missing Picture left off with a more intimate and personal piece. Revolving around his search for the remains of his family, most of whom perished during the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule in Cambodia in the late 1970s, Graves Without A Name is a moving and meditative documentary about his quest to attain some measure of closure for his own anguish.
Melancholic though it might be, Graves remains true to Panh’s unflagging drive for multi-layered exploration of both his personal trauma and Cambodia’s past and present neurosis. In between sequences of the religious rituals he undertakes to find his kin’s burial grounds, the director inserts interviews with rural farmers and their vivid recollections of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal cleansing of Cambodia’s urban intelligentsia — Panh’s family among them — in its attempt to impose a new social order on the country.
At once Panh’s personal eulogy to the victims of this pogrom (around one-fifth of Cambodia’s population perished during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign of terror) and a subtly informative treatise about history and universal humanity, Graves Without A Name is at once emotionally overwhelming, visually ravishing and intellectually stimulating. Opening the Giornate degli Autori (otherwise known as Venice Days) program on Aug. 29 and then screening in Toronto a fortnight onward, the Cambodian-French co-production should enjoy a long life on the festival circuit, possibly all the way to 2019, when the country celebrates the 40th anniversary of the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The documentary begins with Panh having his head shaved in a small provincial temple as he prepares for a religious ceremony. A monk recites prayers and places flour figurines in coffins made of banana tree leaves. A voice — that of Panh’s longtime actor Randal Douc — is heard lamenting (in French) how he’s been dead after all the horrible things he has seen, and how his attempt to laugh light-heartedly always fails, leaving him trudging through life with clenched fists. With all those horrible images gnawing at his mind, the voiceover wonders, could he ever be reborn?
So begins Panh’s quest for spiritual redemption, a real-life Sisyphus walking across fields, bearing religious totems and hoping to locate the very spot where his family members might be buried. Old shamans point the way as they communicate with his dead ancestors in what the narrator describes as a “fraternity between the living and the dead, free from ideology.” Meanwhile, Panh’s yearning for his family is evoked through scenes in which statuettes, masks, small photographs and tattered clothes appear and vanish in rivers, forests and on menacingly barren pastures. All this, the voiceover says, could only end in “impossible mourning,” as there’s no going back to those distant times of childhood innocence.
The emotional weight of these sequences arises from the imaginative mise-en-scene by Panh and DP Prum Mesar, along with a text blending Christophe Bataille’s original material and quotes from, among others, Jean Cayrol’s screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the Pascal Quignard novel that spawned Alain Corneau’s pastoral drama All the World’s Mornings, poems by French surrealist Paul Eluard and the director’s very own book The Elimination. These appropriations serve as vivid, fitting counterpoints to the sadness unfolding onscreen, evoking a very different feeling to Exile‘s raft of quotes from Mao, Robespierre and Alain Badiou.
Graves Without A Name is a personal piece for sure, with Panh appearing onscreen in significant swathes of the film, a first in the director’s three decades behind the camera. But he has produced context for the viewer as well. Seated in fields marked with a legacy of atrocities and deaths, old peasants talk about their own ordeals during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, their own parts in it (the regime fanned “class hatred” among the rural population against the city-dwelling “new people”) and also their observations of how people were randomly killed and their corpses abandoned to the elements, or worse.
Their recollections about the widespread desecration of dead bodies during that era add to the heartrending nature of Panh’s agony-stricken, vain search for the remains of his relatives. Then again, the voiceover suggests that his quest is essentially a symbolic act, with the director hoping to unearth a tooth, a button or a piece of cloth that could allow him (and other survivors) to remember and reimagine the “origins, glances and names” of those who have faithfully and cruelly departed.
More importantly, however, Panh also frames the turmoil of the past in the framework of the present. In The Land of the Wandering Souls (2000), Panh highlighted the eerie parallels between Khmer Rouge-era hard labor and low-pay employment in capitalist Cambodia; in Exile, he warned against the perils of political demagoguery. This time round, the director films his interviewees’ explanation of “baksbat” (Khmer for “broken courage.”) It’s when traumatized people no longer dare to stand up for justice and address problems head-on, a collective anxiety fast becoming a national trait being passed from one generation to another.
This may well be Panh’s allusion to the climate of fear in present-day Cambodia, with the authorities having outlawed oppositional parties, jailed their leaders and shuttered non-conforming media outlets. Not that Graves Without A Name says it out loud: the film thrives in its measured, cinematic contemplation of cruel realities, an approach that is as effective in spelling out problems as high-pitched sloganeering.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate)
Production companies: CDP, Anuheap Production – Cambodia
Director: Rithy Panh
Screenwriters: Rithy Panh with Agnès Sénémaud, with texts by Christophe Bataille
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Directors of photography: Rithy Panh, Prum Mesar
Music: Marc Marder
Editing: Rithy Panh
In French and Cambodian
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