Elo­quent re­sponse to the un­speak­able

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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