TIFF — Day One
Before I begin this madness, I should note that all films are rated on a 1-10 scale
S21, THE KHMER ROUGE KILLING MACHINE (Rithy Panh, France/Cambodia, 2003, 7)
Jean-Luc Godard once said that the film about the concentration camps that needed to be made was one about the perpetrators, not the victims. This film demonstrates that in both good and not-so-good ways. S21 takes its name from a Phnom Penh prison (actually, the title comes closer) and interviews two of the only seven survivors, plus several of the guards.
It’s a bit like an informal version of post-Apartheid South Africa Truth Commission. It’s not an especially political film — a few quick title cards within the first minute take us to the day the Khmer Rouge took power; there is no detailed examination of Khmer Rouge or communist ideology; nor does the film even broach matters of who supported the genocidal regime (Red China, mostly) and acted as its cheerleaders abroad (Chomsky and some of the more-usual usual suspects). The survivors material, the conversations between the two, come across as staged for our benefit. More important, what they say isn’t terribly interesting, simply because, however amazing or grateful their existence is, they come across as didacts spouting platitudes we’ve heard a thousand times in a hundred Holocaust films — “reconciliation is impossible,” “why talk at all?” that sort of thing.
The guards, though, provide the material that makes S21 a worthy and important documentary. The filmmakers take the guards to S21, which is still standing in a museumy kind of way (the numbers on the walls designate places the inmates were chained to the walls, like bed numbers without beds), and the guards re-enact what they did, sometimes to the only political content of the film (the re-playing of Khmer Rouge revolutionary songs, the height of 70s Commie kitsch.) And the film takes on a surreal tone, as the ex-guards are convincing — perhaps a bit too much. One particularly brilliant shot lasts about five minutes as the camera crawls into, out of, and looks through the bars of, a massive holding cell, while the guard re-enacts his methods of dealing with the prisoners. I let out a slight giggle as I realized that he was saying the kinds of things a crabbed schoolmaster does to keep the kids in line “don’t move, if you do, I’m coming inside,” and of course, I was instantly ashamed of my giggle since the punishments go far beyond “six of the best.”
Some viewers criticized the film afterwards as soft-pedeling the guards — not asking any really probing questions of them. That criticism is obviously correct as a plain description of the film, but I think the film was after something else — showing the mechanics of genocide. That kind of questioning would have short-circuited that goal by preventing the guards from showing their behavior yes, but also their attitude — they’re neither abjectly apologetic nor unreconstructedly proud. They vascillate between the poles and middle ground, also giving such (true as far as they go) reasons as their being under orders and their being youths (one even cites the latter as the reason the guards raped all the female prisoners). But they also say something the absence of which always bothers me in Holocaust literature. Several guards say they could kill inmates with no qualms because they believed they were CIA-planted saboteurs, parasite enemies of the Glorious Kampuchean People’s Revolution and all of that. Exactly. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do; it really isn’t any more complicated than that. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen could have given this film an alternate title: POL POT’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS.
DISTANT (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2003, 5)
The back of my mind suspects that fellow TIFF-geeks Mike D’Angelo and Scott Tobias (see links at right) had some secret bet about what I’d think of this film, a highly-anticipated multiple prize winner at Cannes. Each seemed particularly eager, both before and after the film, to convince me that I’d like DISTANT less than I did (Mike) or more than I did (Scott). But I’m neither neither fire nor ice, just in the middle … like lukewarm water.
The basic narrative is an Istanbul version of “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” only here they’re cousins Yusuf (country) and Mahmut (city). I can’t fully embrace this film because it’s made in The Official Cinematic High-Art Style Of Contemporary Ennui — long shots, little dialogue, static framing, expressionless acting, not much happening at some points, and even less than that at others. I like some films made in this style (the works of Tsai Ming-liang, e.g.), but a little of it really does go a long way with me. In addition, the two lead actors are basically hangdog schmucks, posing in glum expressions of boredom throughout (whatever else might be said about Tsai, his actor Lee Kang-sheng is no hangdog). And frankly, I got fairly bored by DISTANT at several points, but every time I start to say how much that annoyed me, I remind myself (or am reminded by Scott) of a number of extremely funny sight (and sound) gags that leaven this hunk of ennui. I won’t even allude to them since some are dropped into the flow of the shot, sometimes so suddenly that that the unexpected suddenness is part of the joke, like the ad parodies in the ROBOCOP films.
In addition, there’s the film’s pure cinematic style, which is little short of breathtaking. Ceylan, a former still photographer, can compose and layer a static shot like nobody’s business. In the particularly fine opening shot, he divides a natural landscape into three distinct spaces (while a sliver of action goes on), and then he does a 90-degree pan to a different, but equally well-segmented landscape. Ceylan also has the mother of all sound designers, and he uses subtle wind chimes and ambient noise to in some cases even create action, and at one point even having a train run over you apparently from behind (I don’t recall that effect used so conspicuously and effectively since the opening chopper whirring in APOCALYPSE NOW … see this film in a good theater if you can).
And writing that “see this…” recommendation, I begin to think that “5” is too harsh, and I need to see it again, and … but still. That piling on of boredom and those inert characters are just finally too much. There is a scene late in the film where one character surreptitiously watches his beloved leave Turkey with someone else. I think it’s meant to be heartbreaking (like BRIEF ENCOUNTER and THE END OF THE AFFAIR). I didn’t give a damn.
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