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Blending images of racist exploitation with on-screen texts proclaiming colonialists as “just” and “generous” among “dangerous and savage cultures,” the title of Rithy Panh‘s latest film must certainly be ironic. Or is it? While boasting sardonic juxtapositions aplenty, France Is Our Mother Country is neither a parody like Luis Bunuel‘s Land Without Bread, nor the political pamphlet of a film a la Rene Vautier‘s Afrique 50. Instead, the Cambodian filmmaker has delivered a tight tapestry of early 20th century archive footage of French-ruled Southeast Asia and Africa, in which a lampooning of colonial grandeur gradually gives way to a seething expression of melancholy and fury about promises broken and paradises lost.
Clocking in at just 75 minutes, France Is Our Mother Country‘s exposure has been limited, with screenings at mostly French events and sojourns to documentary festivals in Geneva (in the city’s Human Rights Film Festival), Rio de Janeiro (where it won the top prize at the It’s All True fest) and Yamagata (where it played as an out-of-competition title). While lacking the tremendous visual panache and emotional power of his previous film, the Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture, France Is Our Mother Country still merits a viewing as a heartfelt, humanist documentary, and a valuable artifact for post-colonial studies programs around the world.
In fact, France Is Our Mother Country shares little resemblance with The Missing Picture: they are, at most, both driven by found footage and revolves around a text (delivered as a narration in The Missing Picture, shown on silent-film-style inter-titles in France Is Our Mother Country) by Christophe Bataille. Within Panh’s ouevre, France should be seen as more a companion piece for The Sea Wall, his 2008 adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novel about a French woman’s desperate attempts to save her Cambodian rice paddies from flooding and also fat-cat bureaucrats running the colonial administration.
In The Sea Wall, the leading character’s initial pride of being part of a project of enlightenment dissipates as she and her family observe (and later partake in) deceitful and brutal behavior towards the local population if not each other. In France Is Our Mother Country, there’s a similar downward spiral into dismay. The film begins with a text (mockingly) celebrating the conquest of the white race over the “cross-bred yellow race,” as a montage of images show locals inducted into “civilization” by becoming workers in sweatshops, or scrambling over loose crumbs thrown to the ground by an aristocrat. The film ends, however, with a rumination that “we’re the enemy … an empire believing it has a mission is a lost empire,” as some French soldiers are shown machine-gunning and carpet-bombing guerillas, while others die and rot in the marshes as the colonial power concedes defeat.
In between, the film presents a hectic combination of incredible images and “descriptions” written so as to fit the deluded narrative of those days of conquest. Frenchmen, described as “seeking no glory,” are shown “sharing their know-how” — in this case, having locals toil in felling trees, or co-opting them into the military. “Our mother country offers freedom and knowledge,” so says another inter-title — and what the viewer then sees is more sweatshops, locals squeezing into cramped vehicles on their way to work, and then more toiling on harsh terrain. And then the “natives” are trained to assist their masters — and the more positive images of real knowledge transference morphs into conversion towards Christianity and consumption, plus the more ominous scene of a priest taking one of his schoolboy charges off for a ride in his car.
Having witnessed carnage up close and withstood immense loss — nearly all his close relatives perished in the Khmer Rouge killing fields — Panh is too emotionally invested and contemplative to do simple satire or sloganeering. France Is Our Mother Country could be seen as an expression of the director’s mixed feelings about the patrie in which he received his education and his big break in filmmaking. And knowing far well what is to follow after the demise of French Indochina in 1954, his view of the colonial discourse is, just as the final sentence of Bataille’s text states, “a story of pictures both beautiful and toxic.”
But authenticity and empathy emerge from such ambiguity, and Panh has yet again offered a sorry tale ripe for reflection, and this remarkably well-researched and sharply edited piece conjures magic and sadness from the ruins of history — just like the beautiful, dilapidated colonial mansion pictured at the start of the film, the only newly-shot footage on show here.
Production companies: CDP, Bophana Production, ECPAD
Director: Rithy Panh
Screenwriter: Christophe Bataille
Producer: Catherine Dussart
Cinematographers: Rithy Panh, Prum Mésar
Editor: Rithy Panh, Anne Borie
Music: Marc Marder
Sound designer: Sear Vissal
International Sales: CDP
No rating; 75 minutes
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