The films at the 2006 Visions du réel festival inspired reflections on how to represent suffering in documentaries.

Emma Davie
Emma Davie's research area is documentary filmmaking. Her work explores approaches to narrative structure and form and how ethical questions affect this.

“Your TVs at home are all fake because there are no real people on your TV. Here, the people are made of flesh and blood.”

In Leonard Retel Helmrich’s powerful film “Promised Paradise”, the main character, Agus, an Indonesian troubadour, pokes his head through a cardboard box, a pretend TV, to remind local children of the reality behind the violent images the media has made banal.

A wind-up toy represents Bin Laden, a cereal packet becomes the World Trade Centre as he re-enacts 9/11, to give the images meaning again. Agus’s crude means indicate how the world of illusion can make us realize the truth more than any amount of sophisticated imagery. If you care about ‘flesh and blood’ you will care about its representation. You question clichés till they bleed.

Promised Paradise by Retel Helmrich

How can filmmakers recollect the suffering of flesh and blood? How can they explore it without sensationalism? This, for me, was a central theme in the films I saw in this inspiring festival, which, as always, nourished the need for discussion, questioning, complicity.

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Jean Perret

The selection of films at Visions du réel is put together with a love of the form that is visionary, never complacent. Festival director Jean Perret calls it a “Festival of the real” and recognizes how representations need to be questioned, boundaries pushed. In addition to documentary, the selection included video art, fiction films and photography. There were powerful masterclasses with Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh and Israeli Avi Mograbi, but space and time were also given to young filmmakers from all over.

In the “All About Me” section, young Japanese filmmaker Miki Setoguchi creates an illusory world to deal with the very real loss of her mother. She uses a raw, visceral mixture of film, performance, stills, and animation to ‘face’ her dead mother (“Mother of the Mother and also the Mother of the Mother’s Mother and her Daughter”).

When her mother was terminally ill, the filmmaker was a child and had to live with her grandmother. “Since I don’t have a mother, I don’t have a place,” she whispers in the narration. Maybe she finds her place in the film itself with its intimate, stifling world of plants, mirrors and strange creations made of unnameable fish. “Is this my mother, my beautiful mother?” the voice whispers. Not only the illness has ravaged her, the daughter’s anger has, too.

The grotesque and erotic co-exist in a disarming way. High heels stand on a liver, squelching it; tentacles of an octopus combine with chicken bits to create a monstrous foetus. Such bizarre scenes express her dislocation of emotions but the wittiness in the imagery hints that the film is a way of playing with the darkness, of partly mocking the melodrama of loss.

It is a film made from the consciousness and sensuality of the body. In the discussion between the Japanese and Swiss filmmakers also participating in this section, another young filmmaker, Haruyo Kato, talked of how she wanted to make work with the “sensation of skin”. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. You can’t disagree with skin.

A more disturbing work engaged with the body’s memory is Polish video artist Artur Zmijewski’s “80064”. The film takes place in a tattoo parlour where the artist meets with Josef Tarnawaa, a 92-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. Josef recounts his camp experiences and relates how his number was initially tattooed. The filmmaker stands over him and explains how he wants to “renovate your tattoo” – an agreement had already been made to make the number clearer. “It’s not necessary,” Josef Tarnawaa says. “Why are you imposing this burden on me?” But Artur is persuasive: the number is re-tattooed.

In this mundane world of the tattoo parlour, the brutality of the camps is re-enacted, the shame of the perpetrators somehow shared in this act of creating and watching the work unfold. It is an unsettling film where the very act of transgression becomes the content of the work. The artist talked afterwards of how he felt the benefits gained by watching the film “outweighed the ethical questions”.

In Artur Zmijewski’s “80064,” a concentration-camp survivor has his number re-tattooed.

Although I disagreed with his stance, it gave rise to complex, dark questions about our role as filmmakers in dealing with the memory of suffering. Something became engraved in the mind: an uncomfortable complicity with the initial act, a sense that we are not allowed to be just innocent onlookers. In the end, though, what remained for me was not the barbaric history represented by the initial tattoo itself, but the questionable re-creation of pain in any individual for “the greater good” of art.

Such disconcerting work needs debate out with the gallery context and its place at the festival allowed the audience to engage in heated discussion. Again and again at “Visions du representation”: form.

Some of the short films by Israeli Avi Mograbi also use the border between video art and documentary to avoid the clichés of narrative-based work. In his inspiring masterclass he talked about his continued resistance to Israel’s occupation in his work and how he has decided to stay in Israel because we “cannot escape from who we are.”

The intersection of suffering with everyday life was expressed eloquently in his short film “Wait, It’s the Soldiers, I’ll Hang Up Now”. He filmed himself having a phone conversation with his Palestinian friend, under siege at the time in the occupied territories. The friend, who we never see, has to put down the phone as the soldiers have returned to search his apartment in Ramallah.

Mograbi looks shaken, and as he leaves for his kitchen, we are left with his empty Tel Aviv room. His friend’s world is, as Mograbi said “a reality that we cannot see and we cannot really share.” The film’s distance from the burning point of suffering creates an added pain. The safe Tel Aviv room becomes invested with a muffled brutality – as though this comfort is somewhat symbiotic with that suffering.

The film acknowledges the limits of compassionate imagination and allows the silence of an empty room to articulate so much. It plays on in the mind, despite its brevity and simplicity – or maybe because of it: “We cannot escape from who we are.”

Absence also haunts the work of Cambodian Rithy Panh. The festival featured a retrospective of his brilliant films which have been described as “a form of liturgy between amnesia and catharsis”. Working both with fiction and documentary, Panh was 11 when the Khmer Rouge took power but is keen not always to be referred to as a ‘genocide survivor’. In his powerful atelier, he talked about the need to shed light on his country’s past in order to move on.

In “S21”, we see the photos of some of the 20,000 people tortured and executed at this execution centre. Panh explained how pictures were used by the executioners to erase the past of prisoners. In “one click” they lost their identity and became a number; the torturers had to de-humanize the prisoners before they could kill them. For Panh, it is vital that the process of making a film reverses this and avoids dispossessing their identities a second time. They are not just archives for him, “but traces which must be faced up to. For me these photos have a soul, they are living.”

“S 21” asks profound questions about human cruelty and individual responsibility in a non-moralizing way, alive to the openness of poetry and metaphor – not the tyranny of the word. In his talk, Panh mentioned how in Khmer culture, language is very image based.

It was the tyranny of the word which condemned people to their deaths in the camps. The most atrocious crimes were based on a plethora of documents and false confessions extracted from prisoners under torture. The former guards who Panh filmed revisiting the camp, described how the purpose of the torture was to make the prisoners believe their own lies so they could be executed.

In the atelier, Panh talked of the importance of ‘the memory of gesture’ in unearthing the past. “S21” contains an unsettling choreography of recollected violence when the guards re-enact their grisly, daily acts of tyranny and torture. Like an actor playing his part, one of the guards walks us unquestioningly through his daily ritual of checking, bullying, harassing the prisoners. As he re-creates such an act in a prison room, Panh stops outside the door, at a wide shot. To move his camera closer, to film the details of the torturer hitting them, would have forced him to trample on the dead prisoners on the ground – so present had their absence become in the film. Like Mograbi, Panh understands how articulate empty space can be.

Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

One of the few survivors of the S 21 death camp, an artist called Van Nhath, was present at the Festival. Van Nhath, who was kept alive to paint images of Pol Pot, now uses his art to re-collect precise details of how people were killed and tortured.

Panh explains how it was unplanned and unsought by him, but Van Nhath ended up confronting his oppressors at the jail in the film itself. In an incredible scene he puts his arm round Rhi, one of the guards, and shows him his paintings, verifying the details of the torture.

Such a horrific past deserves precise recollection and Van Nhath and Panh seem to collaborate in retrieving the dead, saving them from oblivion. By re-investing meaning into numbers and words, Van Nhath’s paintings and Panh’s films become a subversive struggle against the dissolution of identity.

Vann Nath confronts his former jailers at S-21.

By placing the importance of the exactitude of memory at the centre of “S21”, Panh avoids easy judgments, especially when filming the guards. This approach elicits an almost cathartic complicity from them, allowing the film to face the unimaginable. As the torturers look at photos of the dead and tortured, recalling how they harmed prisoners to extract information, voices are low, and Van Nhath asks them calmly “How could you do this?” At once, the profundity and simplicity of the question cuts through time, becoming universal, unanswerable.

In my opinion, Panh’s work is some of the most profound I’ve seen on human suffering and cruelty, on a par with Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”. The lack of sensationalism or voyeurism in “S21” suggests a certain moral resolution in itself – as if the act of really looking with such wisdom could invest the barbarous past with a re-ignited humanity.

Panh, like Helmrich’s character Agus, is suspicious of the way TV handles suffering. He is now trying to open an Audio Visual Centre for Cultural identity in Cambodia to return ‘the sound and image’ of all that’s been made there – the less the young will forget. I was moved to see that Visions du réel is involved in this. Both Panh and the festival recognize the responsibility that goes with conveying the ‘real’.

Here, the people are made of flesh and blood.

 


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