Compilation film—film made entirely from other film—is one of film’s oldest genres. After all, Esfir Shub made The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty in 1927. And compilation film was on display at IDFA 2015, still showing its vitality.
Mark Cousins (familiar to many for his book and series on the history of cinema) created, in Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise a set of evocative, allusive collages of found footage around the meaning of the arrival of the atomic age. Meditative in tone, it is horrific in implications, and mixes memory and dread. It demonstrates the range of ways that compilation footage can be used to evoke feeling, and revive connection with past experience.
The shocker of the fest, though, was Rithy Panh’s latest, a masterpiece of compilation film, France Is Our Mother Country. For anyone interested in the history and legacy of colonialism, it is required viewing. Panh, whose earlier work has recalled back into history much suppressed knowledge of the ravages of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, explores the arrogance and paternalism of French colonialism, using only early French propaganda. He appears to have conducted a massive archival search, of both private and public archives, for the raw material.
He interlaces footage of colonized people, posed for their exoticism, with French “educational” film maerial designed to convince the colonized peoples of their luck at being both colonized by France and being given the opportunity to join French civilization.
Intertitles from the silent propaganda films drive home the message: “France helps these people recover their ancient heritage from the encroaching jungle.” “An enigmatic and simple people.” “France looks for neither possessions nor glory. Its vision of man is fraternal and generous.” “Those who resist progress are justly reprimanded.”
Meanwhile, images of men and women at brutal work, men under imprisonment in jungle, resources extracted at huge human cost leaving deep scars in the earth, women working as prostitutes serve as counterpoint and reproof. Western colonists are seen at their sporting events, at a fashion show, at their clubs, rating the submissiveness and beauty of women of different ethnicities. Panh also works intricately with the sound track, to cue irony.
And yet the colonizing culture celebrates the kindness of its civilizing work. There is education; we watch a young girl writing on a blackboard, “France is our mother country.” There is military training. There are hospitals. “Certain races have infantile intellectual capacities and balk at working their muscles,” the propaganda film chastises, showing young people doing exercises under supervision. “One day a people without history will thank France for its tutelage.”
Panh waits till the end to insert his own titles into the tapestry of violence he has rewoven: “There is always a language of the colonialist. Sometimes shocking, often silent. Worse: benevolent.” From that moment, the resistance to colonialism animates the film, but Panh leaves the implications open. As he says at the end, justifying his deliberate decontextualization of images and sound, “History is voiceless. History is not universal.”
Panh is someone who knows well the origins of the Khmer Rouge in French colonialism and US decisions and actions in the region. This film is a provocation for many whose countries and cultures have a piece of Cambodia’s backstory. It would be great to see this film in the ethnographic Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Although France occupied southeast Asia for nearly a century, the museum nearly erases the colonialist connection, showcasing art and artifacts from, among other places, Cambodia and Vietnam as if they were timeless and sometimes puzzling leftovers from another planet of experience. France Is Our Mother Country remakes the connection.