If you could chose a country to be your
colonial power, there is no question it would be the United Kingdom. They sure
knew how to train civil servants. On the other hand, nobody would voluntarily opt
for France. Although they were not quite as bad as the Belgians, the French
have had the hardest time accepting the end of the colonial era, often with
tragic results. Rwanda certainly proved both points when it became the first non-UK
colony to join the British Commonwealth. It had been French. Rithy Panh echoes
that critical ambivalence towards the French colonial experience in his
archival docu-essay, France is Our Mother
Country (clip here), which
screens as part of the 2016 Doc Fortnight at MoMA.
Nothing screams “imperialist” like a white
suit and a pith helmet. Apparently, that was the uniform of choice for French
colonial oligarchs in Indochina. In his spliced together pseudo-narrative, Panh
captures plenty of similarly outfitted Frenchmen overseeing factory and
plantation work or getting drunk at garden parties. Their images have not aged
well, but that is why they are so on-point for Panh.
Essentially, the film’s arc can be summed up
as “they came, they exploited, and they left the land in political and military
chaos.” However, despite their damning fashion sense and the air-headed French
party girls cavorting on sacred religious sites, Mother Country never lowers the final coup de grâce. In fact, the footage of a 1920s or 1930s rain forest medical clinic
looks relatively progressive, especially for the times.
Panh has a shrewd eye for imagery, but he
never fully establishes a clear cause-and-effect chain of events linking the
French imperialist adventurism of the early Twentieth Century with the
Communist madness of the late Twentieth Century. He also indulges in the equivalent
of shooting fish in a barrel when quoting one of the era’s painfully virulent
racial theorists. Yet, Marc Marder nearly saves the day singlehandedly with his
distinctive, frequently jazz-influenced score.
Aside from Panh’s
subversive editorial sensibilities, there is not so much to take-away from Mother Country. It lacks the beauty,
grace, and anger of his Oscar-nominated masterwork The Missing Piece, but that is a hard film to be judged against.
Perhaps this represents a pragmatic strategy for a follow-up, precisely because
it is so different. Almost recommended solely for Marder’s themes (rather than
Panh’s), France is Our Mother Country is
mostly just grist for professional Third World Studies majors when it screens
again tonight (2/24) as part of this year’s Doc Fortnight at MoMA.
Labels: Cambodian Cinema, Doc Fortnight '16, Documentary, Rithy Pahn