Eloquent response to the unspeakable
LAST year, reviewing Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, I bravely gave it five stars and called it a masterpiece. And who remembers it now? All those who have seen it, I should think. The film was a surreal and strangely hypnotic depiction of the slaughter of communists and other left-wing elements by Indonesian military death squads in 1965. Millions are known to have died. In a brilliant stroke of daring, Oppenheimer told their story through interviews with the killers, intercut with scenes from a musical film supposedly inspired by their exploits.
If it is true, as Bertolt Brecht believed, that only through music and good humour can humanity’s worst horrors be confronted in retrospect, we must now welcome another brilliant film on an equally dreadful subject. The Missing Picture, a Cambodian-French documentary directed by Rithy Panh, is an account of the slaughter of millions of Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who seized power in Phnom Penh in 1975 under the leadership of the Stalinist despot Pol Pot. The regime lasted four years — the years of the so-called “killing fields”, when Cambodia’s entire middle class was targeted for destruction and the country’s rivers ran with blood. Panh’s film is a stunning combination of archival footage and animation, with tiny clay figurines standing in for the human players in the story.
It is wonderful how well the two elements work together, without a hint of strain or contrivance. We begin with the discovery of rusted old cans of newsreel film, much of which, we assume, was restored for Panh’s documentary. There are brief close-ups of the little clay figures being carved and painted (though the face of the sculptor, Sarith Mang, is never shown). Then Panh begins recalling his childhood in Phnom Penh in a voice-over narration, spoken in French by Randal Douc. They were days of blissful serenity. Rithy’s father read poetry to the children while their mother cooked. Rithy was 13 when his family was transported in cattle trucks to “re-education centres” for indoctrination in the true spirit of communism.
Families were stripped of their possessions (“our only belonging was our spoon”) and condemned to hard labour. Most died of hunger, starvation or disease, and one of Rithy’s tasks was to help bury their corpses. He remembers his father starving himself to death rather than eat food fit only for animals.
The film works through a strange process of suggestion. The sight of the clay models moving like cartoon figures against static backgrounds invites an ironic response. The effect is to emphasise, rather than soften, the horrors of the story. In this way, too, the old newsreel footage takes on greater power and immediacy. Panh is content to show the old footage as it is — complete with scratches and torn frames. Much of what we see has already been sanitised for propaganda purposes — ant-like hordes of cheerful workers toiling in quarries and fields, the ever-smiling face of Pol Pot, greeting a fraternal delegation from China or inspecting his ranks of captive drones.
The voice-over narration, though perhaps a little too persistent (like Marc Marder’s plaintive string score), is eloquent and moving. But it is the images that speak loudest — pigs rooting in the soil outside buildings that once were libraries (“we are a land that hates knowledge”); torture centres in buildings that once were schools; hospitals, hellholes of misery and suffering, now housed in old pagodas. But Panh never revels in horror for its own sake. The film’s tone is poetic, reverent, tinged with a piercing nostalgia. He has no need to stress what is already too awful contemplate.
And the missing picture of the title? We can interpret the phrase in different ways. For Panh it represents the image of his lost childhood, the idyllic world of a loving family destroyed by a monstrous ideology. There is a more literal interpretation when he speculates on the disappearance of incriminating photographic evidence of Pol Pot’s crimes. We are told of one newsreel cameraman who accidentally filmed Cambodian children dressed in rags during the visit of the Chinese leaders and was tortured and executed for his carelessness. Can such things be? Is the virus of evil despotism still alive in the world? We don’t have to look far. The Missing Picture invites uncomfortable reflections. Modest in scale, simple in conception, it is a great film — certainly a great little film — and many viewers will be moved to tears. IT is hard to tell whether Rise of the Eco-Warriors is a feature-length Australian documentary, a global environmental project or a 100minute commercial for the Greens. There is no sign of our eco-warriors’ party but have no doubt they will approve of Cathy Henkel’s film. In fact, they’ll love it. And being largely in sympathy with their concerns, if not always with their tactics and priorities, I loved it myself.
It tells the story of a group of young adventurers, drawn from across the world, who spent 100 days in a journey through the jungles of Borneo on a mission to save the rainforests and rescue endangered orang-utans. Three of the 16 warriors who set out on the trip were Australian. Their venture was sponsored in part by a global environmental movement called DeforestACTION, and the film producers received support from government film bodies and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation. A worthy cause, no doubt. The aim is to disseminate their environmental message through a global network of schools and social media and do something practical for the Borneo villagers as well. Already they are claiming some success.
So what of the film itself? For all the earnest conviction of the filmmakers, there is nothing solemn or portentous about it. Everything feels relaxed and unrehearsed, driven by the warmth and good humour of the young people. What comes across is an infectious, almost innocent idealism. These warriors are in no doubt they can make a difference, if not change the world. With the support of local villagers, and with no apparent resistance from the Indonesian authorities, they establish a jungle nursery for sugarpalm seedlings and a shelter where young orang-utans, whose habitat has been destroyed by developers, can be reared for resettlement in the wild.
It seems vast tracts of Borneo’s forests have been replanted with palm-oil trees, which yield a highly profitable product widely used in cosmetics and food preservation. As one young eco-warrior points out during a riverboat journey, bulldozers flatten the forests and pour CO2 into the atmosphere while gold prospectors poison the rivers with effluent, and young orangutans — those not orphaned by the carnage — are the victims of an illegal trade in wildlife. The scene-stealers in Henkel’s film are Jojo and Juvi, two baby orang-utans who know how to play to the camera. Global catastrophe may be just around the corner, but there’s plenty of fun and adventure to be had in the meantime.
The jungle settings are beautifully photographed. Henkel is an experienced documentary-maker whose previous film, The Burning Season, explored similar eco-friendly themes. My one complaint with this one is it lacks a clear and authoritative narrative voice. What is this cage, I wondered. Why are they building this flimsy timber structure in the forest? And why is one sort of palm-tree more eco-friendly than another? All becomes clear if we pay attention, and in the end we rejoice in the young warriors’ enthusiasm. We need such people.
Volunteers Ben and Perry in Rise of the Eco-Warriors