Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
CONFLICT: Acclaimed Cambodian director Rithy Panh takes viewers on a compelling disturbing and artistic study of the corrosive power of evil in human existence.

Irradiated is not an easy film to watch. Arranged in a formalistic manner with the screen split into three vertical screens on which mostly the same images are displayed, this study of the corrosive power of human evil is both compelling and repulsive. Director Rithy Panh, who experienced the pain of his own country’s descent into madness, mayhem, and murder under Pol Pot, uses the stream of images ranging from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through images of the devastation of trench warfare of a century ago, to the banal evil of the Nazi concentration camps and cultural revolutions of China and Cambodia, in a manner that is almost hypnotic.

The film, which follows a path winding forward and backward across a tortured landscape of human pain, is accompanied by a dialogue between an unseen male and female narrator that is a drumbeat to the relentless images of burnt bodies, discarded skulls, and eviscerated bowels.

The winner of a Berlinale Golden Bear for best documentary earlier this year, Irradiated is a timely reminder of the ubiquity of evil. The scenes and times may change, but the insane answer to mostly imagined problems – death – remains a static component of blind outrages across the ages.

Irradiated-documentary-featured
Irradiated, a film by Rithy Panh

Invisible. Efficient.

Drawing on documentary footage that includes infamous images of the Hiroshima bomb on Japanese civilians and the sights that met Allied soldiers liberating Nazi death camps in 1945, the almost Socratic dialogue has the power of a metronome to give pace and cadence to the images: «Death is invisible in the sky…Death is efficient…How many died in the fields where nothing awaited them? In the trenches, in the woods…for a few more yards more or less?»

Truisms rarely enunciated are to be found here: «There will always be a writer defending this war.»

And the facts we care to neglect are put back centre stage: «Tokyo, Coventry, Dresden, Le Havre, Hanoi, Verdun, the hills of Rwanda, Birkenau, Nanking, the Kolyma labour camps…so many irradiated lives. It’s human history…. You end up with the same fields of white crosses, so beautiful on summer nights you could forget what they stand for.»

The scenes and times may change, but the insane answer to mostly imagined problems – death – remains a static component of blind outrages across the ages.

The lowest point

The hypnotically compelling beat and flow, flow and beat, become almost unbearable at times. Watched from the comfort of a computer screen, one can distance oneself. This is a film that should be seen in a darkened cinema hall, the hush of an audience disturbed only by the sound of your own heart beating.

The message goes in through that heart, not through the mind: «I know the lowest point on earth. It is man.»

Panh does not leave us totally bereft after this litany of images and words. He intercuts images of genocide later with more gentle performances by traditional Japanese Buto dancers and he concludes with post-war footage of a French death camp survivor in the 1960s approaching passersby in Paris to ask if they feel happy: most brush her aside or hurry past. She carried the pain of one that survived while others, loved ones, died. But she is alive and though she carries the effects of that irradiation of pain, she will live as a monument to those that died.

As the narrators say: «You need to look again and again, for evil runs deep…Evil irradiates it hurts including, future generations. But innocent lies beyond.»

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