“Colonies do not cease to be colonies because they are independent.” — Benjamin Disraeli (1863)
Rithy Panh is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker known for his award-winning films about the Cambodian genocide. Born in Phnom Penh and educated in Paris, Panh found in film a means of addressing the tragic history of his country and his own traumatic past. To explore colonialism’s relationship to Khmer Rouge genocide, he has made two feature films, one a fiction film based on Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical novel, The Sea Wall, the other a compilation documentary, La France est notre Patrie (France is our Motherland). This essay explores the latter film, a biting satire about la plus grande France and its exploitation of the empire’s land and people framed as its mission civilisatrice.
Drawing largely upon early silent films, newsreels, home movies, ethnographic reports, commercial and governmental propaganda, and military reconnaissance, Panh marshals a dizzying array of sounds, images, and texts to critique how French imperial power fostered and justified racist and class-based beliefs and practices in the service of its profit and power. There is no voice-over commentary here; instead, this essay film relies on intertitles drawn from a variety of writers and thinkers. Throughout Panh interrogates the ideology found in French archival films much as he examined Khmer Rouge ideology embedded in their propaganda films, sequences he has used again and again in films like The Missing Picture, Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell, and S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. As usual Panh finds his own form, an experiment with a digital sense of time that begins with the hurly-burly of Lumière operators peddling cinematic technology and colonial values world-wide and ends with the bloody demise of France’s colonial rule heralding a new era of post-industrial death and devastation.
Deirdre Boyle is Emerita Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York. She is the author of Ferryman of Memories: The Films of Rithy Panh, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press. She has written numerous essays on independent video and film and edited or written seven books, including Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford University Press). She is the former director of the Graduate Certificate in Documentary Studies at The New School which honored her with the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award. She has received Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Asian Cultural Council Fellowships and residencies at various artist colonies. She is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist.
A Minor Genocide (2018), a hybrid documentary which uses interviews, archive, and animation, is an adaption of an autobiographical novel/creative non-fiction written by an award winning Polish writer and poet Anna Jankp who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film. The film was directed and produced by Natalia Koryncka-Gruz and features the writer Anna Janko, her mother and her daughter engaged in an excavation of the events of the Second World War during which the grandmother of the writer witnessed an annihilation of the whole village in southern Poland, including moment of horror of German soldiers shooting fellow family members. This event, decades ago, appears to have cast a long traumatic shadow on the family’s lives without them being able to name it until now.
My paper will reflect on the ways in which interviews and animation were interwoven and to what extent the notion of conflict and ‘the unrepresentable’ functions in this film. I will consider the film in the context of the documentary work that deals with the issues of pain and violence including Waltz with Bashir (2008). I see A Minor Genocide as a particularly feminine response to violent conflict. I will consider here ‘feminism as the female command of space’ (Jessy Tuddenham, Gropius Bau, 2018) . I explore how to make space to turn feelings of vulnerability into empowering actions as the film puts forward extraordinary activist postulates regarding respect for all life.
I will use psychoanalysis but propose to sharpen my activist feminist approach, revealing the tension between psychoanalystical thinking as well as acts of persistence (Judith Butler ‘The Force of Non-Violence’, 2020) and plasticity (Catherine Malabou, Changing Difference, 2011). I will consider how The Minor Genocide speaks to Erin Manning’s inquiry into The Minor Gesture (2016).
Professor Agnieszka Piotrowska, PhD, is a Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Gdansk, Poland, and a professorial fellow at Oxford Brookes, UK. She is the former Head of School for Film, Media and Performing Arts at the UCA, UK. She an award-winning filmmaker and theorist, best known for her film Married to the Eiffel Tower. Her latest book is the Creative Practice Research in the Age of Neoliberal Hopelessness (2020). She has written extensively about film, gender and psychoanalysis and has also been making experimental work and video essays. She was a finalist in the Times Higher Competition in 2018 in the category of the Excellence and Innovation in the Arts.
Recent Croatian documentaries on the 1990s Yugoslav conflict do not call for an illusionary return to the unmediated past but they stress the process of (re)presentation and construction of private and collective memory; they do not only question historical truths but they also address the process of remembering and forgetting from different angles. Elsaesser (2001) claims that owing to the new media, culture generates and circulates new forms of media history, it accommodates new narratives and mediated histories that replace earlier forms of historical narrative. Film embodies the paradox of trauma and its representation; this paradox is conditioned by the unreproducible nature of trauma whose “truth” is constantly contested. Guerin and Hallas (2007) stress the shift that occurred in the early 1990s from a narrow focus on questions of truth and referentiality in documentary film to a theoretical and historical concern with its complex discursive constructions.
Historical trauma in post-war societies can be understood not only in terms of bearing witness to specific events but also as an ongoing struggle over the representation of the past. Close ties between cinema and memory have been foregrounded by cinema’s capacity to manipulate memory’s divergences from linear temporality and to express memory’s free associations. The representation of memory in cinema often involves experimenting with form and style, narrative temporality, cause and effect, elliptical, fragmented narratives, as it can be seen in the recent post-war Croatian documentaries on the 1990s conflict in which the very idea of individual and collective discourses on memory and trauma come into play. These documentaries stress the process of (re)presentation and construction of private and collective memory by experimenting with documentary temporalities and modes of representation.
Etami Borjan works as Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Zagreb in Croatia. She teaches courses on Italian, ethnographic, documentary, and European cinemas. She holds MA in Film Studies from the University La Sapienza in Rome and PhD in Film Studies from the University of Zagreb. In 2010 she was granted a Fulbright Fellowship as a Visiting Researcher at New York University. She has published articles on theory and history of documentary cinema, ethnographic film, Italian cinema and post-Yugoslav cinemas in English, Italian and Croatian language and the book Others on Screen: Ethnographic Film and Indigenous Filmmaking (2013).
Malin Wahlberg is a Professor in Cinema Studies at the Department for Media Studies, at Stockholm University. She is the author of Documentary Time. Film and Phenomenology (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and has also published on experimental film and video, science cinema, and documentary in early public broadcasting culture. Her present work seeks to theorize the aesthetics and experience of sonic traces, voice and aurality in documentary cinema and contemporary art. In 2013, Wahlberg co-organized Visible Evidence XX in Stockholm.