Review: Graves Without a Name
by Vittoria Scarpa
- VENICE 2018: While searching for the graves of his own family members, killed by the Khmer Rouge, Rithy Panh reflects on memory in his new documentary, which opened the 15th Giornate degli Autori
The story of an atrocious genocide, that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the search for the remains of family members and their wandering and frightened souls. A journey in memory unfolds on two levels, on a personal level and on a national level in the Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s new documentary, Graves Without a Name [+see also:
interview: Rithy Panh
film profile], screened at the opening of the 15th edition of Giornate degli Autori at Venice. The director, who was deported from the capital Phnom Penh in 1975, along with his loved ones and two million others, and then forced to work in the Khmer Rouge camps, has already retraced his terrible past in previous films (such as The Missing Picture [+see also:
film profile], winner of the Un Certain Regard section in 2013 and a candidate that same year for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars). But this time, the narrative is more intimate, and Panh appears in his own film, having his hair shaved before a religious rite at an unexpected spiritual meeting with his father.
The spirituality here is very strong and counterbalances the harsh nature of the testimonies we hear, those of two old peasants who accurately recall the inhumane living conditions imposed on them at the time by communist revolutionaries, violence, executions, rapes, all in the name of the fight against capitalism and an equality that was virtually impossible to achieve. People lived in terror, and the citizens of Phnom Penh – the embodiment of Lon Nol’s regime, which was supported by the Americans – were sent to the countryside to die of hunger, and there too they fell victim to the hatred of local peasants. Violence is contagious, one of the witnesses explains, and no one was able to give a proper burial to the dead: there were too many of them. Rithy Panh, who survived the slaughter after managing to escape to Thailand and then France, searches for his father, his mother, his sisters, his nephews, through the rituals of the shamans and by sinking his hands into the earth. Pictures showing his family members in peace, smiling, appear and disappear among the trees and leaves of a tortured land, and the more we look at them, the more a crime of such magnitude seems so merciless and inexplicable.
But it is the dialogue with the souls of the people who are no longer here, but who still surround us, that become the heart of this film, and what makes it universal. A necessary dialogue, according to the director, in order to give these souls a place of eternal rest, in order to free them from fear so that they can find peace together. That same sense of final pacification that the director’s documentary leaves its viewers, full of poetry and transcendence, sober and calm despite the horrors it tells.
Graves Without a Name is a Franco-Cambodian co-production by CDP - Catherine Dussart Productions. International sales are being managed by Playtime. The film will fly to Toronto Film Festival immediately after the Giornate degli Autori at Venice.
(Translated from Italian)
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