January 10, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Film is a window onto the soul. It is a way of unpicking human beings, of seeing straight into their eyes. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of the most famous shots is the closeup. Peering into the character's eyes we can get a sense of their anguish, of the bends of that piece of the crooked timber of humanity. Nowhere is this truer than when filming takes on religion. Great film makers from Bresson to Bergman have seen in religion- in particular in European Catholicism and Protestantism a subject which continues the define the fate of the West and the fate of each individaul living in the world. God becomes a character within the cinema: whether it is his silence echoing through Bergman's Winter Light, the greatest film of Calvinist desolation ever made, or his stern adjunction in the films of Bresson, or his unreal presence in those of Rosselini, coming like Christ before the inquisitor. When we think of religion we can think of its departure from this world, a world that Bresson's L'Argent informs us is irredeemably corrupt. Surprisingly Of Gods and Men is a film about monks: it is a film about monks that argues for engagement with the world, for sympathy with it.

Of Gods and Men is a film that concerns itself with a unique situation. We begin and stay inside the monastery for most of the film. THis is a film about the monastery itself and its community. We only go outside that community to establish some central facts. The first fact is the context in which the monastery resides. The local community love the monks. One monk, Luc, functions as the local village's doctor. The other monks are also deeply embedded in this community. Their Christianity is not seen as an impediment for the Muslims around them are committed to toleration. The second context is the threat from outside. We see the murder of some Croats working out in the desert early on in the film and we are always aware that the Islamic Fundamentalist opposition to the government will at some point come and kill these monks. The dilemma becomes the issue of what the monk's duty is. If they go to seek their own safety, are they really cowardly. Is departure an indication that they are neglecting the community that they have helped to nurture: a woman tells them that the villagers are the birds sitting on a tree, the monks are the branch they reside on. But if they stay, is that just as egoist a decision: do they seek martyrdom where they do not need to? Are they spiritually arrogant?

I am not sure I can answer those questions: I have never sat in that position and have no idea, though have a fear, of how I would react. What I think is interesting is the way in which the monks come to their decision. Christian their leader begins by discussing with them as a group and there is rancour and discord. The discussion is closed off by prayer. As the film moves forward, each member of the group struggles to a greater or lesser extent with what the decision means. One monk almost goes mad in his cell, shouting about God having abandoned him in his hour of need. There is actual spiritual anguish here. There is also contemplation. The film is happy to stay with the monks as they make the decision, tracking Christian as he walks through a forest thinking in silence, or shooting another two monks having a trivial argument about the washing up. An argument that is really about less trivial things. You see that as the process of decision happens so the activity of the monastery continues: the men treat the sick, they pray, they talk to the local villagers (there is one touching exchange between a girl on the verge of her twenties and Luc for example). Activity we see is part of this decision: it is part of the prayer that leads them to take their decision.

It is also a coping mechanism. This is a decision but its also a worry. We can see the monks are driven by their need to decide whether to go or to stay, but they are also terrified by their situation. To decide to stay is to take a very brave decision. They are able to deal with this worry through their normal activities. You can see this in two moments. Both are moments of great tension but in both the monks survive because they don a clothing of Catholicism. Firstly when the Islamic Fundamentalists arrive at the monastery in the middle of night asking for medicine: Christian's response is to tell them that guns are not allowed in the monastery. He tells them that the monks will treat any fundamentalist, but they will not move their medicine around for them. He does two other things though: he quotes the Quran to the invaders about Christianity, about the particular kindness of priests and he informs them that the day they invaded is Christmas. Later they bring a wounded comrade to the monastery and Luc treats him. These moments of intersection are moments in which the monks use their monastic principles to quiet their anxiety. Secondly there is a moment in which a helicopter comes over the monastery: the monks fear for their lives, but instead of panicking they go inside the monastery and sing prayers to God. The prayers do not drive the helicopter away- why would they- but they provide a psychological release.

The danger is real. Throughout the film the Algerian government are shown warning the monks. The army arrives to protect them and the monks dismiss it because it interrupts their work. The army commander is keen to restate the dangers. The army take Christian to identify a terrorist leader's body, he does so but shakes his head. The soldier sniffs in contempt. This is not a film which unambiguously takes the side of the monks: the Algerians say at one point, that the reason that Algeria has its problems is its history of colonialism. The view of the monks appears to be that they are as much part of the history of Algeria as anyone else: or rather that they are now part of their monastery and cannot be decoupled from it. Throughout the film you get the sense of the affection between the monks and the land. Perhaps this makes sense in the context of France in Algeria in particular. Its also powerful because it gets to something else about the film: the monks are not aggressively anti-Muslim and neither is the film. We see Algeria through the eyes of the monks, rather than through our own eyes, and it looks to them as though it is a complex society riven by hatred. A complex society which has thrown up a gang of fools but also contains its fair share of saints.

This is a film ultimately about the monks. It is a difficult task as a non-Christian living in a society that forgot monasteries at the reformation to understand the role and function of monastic living. Whether you are a Christian or not, I think what this film does is explain the process of decision making under stress in that kind of a community and open to your eyes a world which dominated Western spirituality right up until the seventeenth century. Walking out of the cinema, one thought flashed into my head: Bergman and Bresson and Rosselini all deal with the role of Christianity in the modern world, after the death of God. This film does not deal with that modernity but another. It takes us to the frontiers of Christendom and positions its deepest questions around the roles of Christians on that frontier. If Bergman and Bresson and Rosselini are in dialogue with Dosteovsky and Vico: then Of Gods and Men speaks of missionaries, martyrdom and forgiveness. Its subject is older, but no less interesting.

January 09, 2011

Enemies of the People

We live our lives surrounded by the past. It envelops and confines us within patterns of behaviour. This functions at a personal and a political level. Thet Sambath's film, Enemies of the People, is a study of memory and the way that it has effected his life and the lives of others. Its an attempt to explain what happened in the 1970s in Cambodia, when Pol Pot seized power and millions were slaughtered. What Sambath does isn't to examine the details of Cambodian politics at that point: he does not approach the issue as a student of diplomacy or of political structures. What he does is approach the entire drama from a humanistic point of view. He looks at the individuals that performed the murders and asks them why they did what they did. Its important to realise after all that genocide cannot happen without perpetrators: within obedience is consent. Sambath's film takes the entire gamut of the perpetrators. He spent ten years making it. The ten years were well spent, he presents us with the killers themselves: the men and women in charge of the operation in the killing fields. He presents us also with Nuon Chea, Brother No 2, Pol Pot's deputy, who never sullied his hands with blood but who ordered the entire event.

Sambath's quest is given particular relevance by the fact that he himself is a victim. His father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. His brother vanished under their rule, probably killed too. His mother was forced to marry a Khmer cadre and died in child birth. Everything Sambath says about the Khmer regime is conditioned, we know from his narration, by these deaths. In that sense he represents the whole of Cambodia: roughly speaking a quarter of the population were murdered in those bloody years and therefore most Cambodians must like Sambath be directly effected through their relatives. The documentary becomes therefore not merely a medium in which the killers and the officials remember, it becomes a medium for Sambath to recover the meaning, the memory of the events which slaughtered his family. You get a hint of what this might mean when he discusses the members of his family who are now alive and remarks that his surviving sister and he can never speak: they can never speak because to speak reawakens the memories of the dead and the destroyed. The place of pain from which this documentary flows means that it is a particularly visceral act of memory: I challenge you to watch it and not to cry.

But there are two places of pain to remember these events from. The first is grief: Sambath's grief and his guilt. Guilt that the last words he spoke to his brother were those of disappointment about a fighting cock that his brother had forgotten to bring home: a reminder lest any were needed that even under totalitarianism people live normal lives and worry normal worries. The grief is more obvious. The other place of pain though is the pain of the perpetrator. At one point one of Sambath's interviewees, a devout Buddhist, speaks of the fact that in his belief system he will never come back as a human being. He tries to imagine what he might come back as but cannot imagine something bad enough as a punishment. Watching the faces of the perpetrators, you see both the impassivity of having seen too much and the pain of having done too much. They stutter, they deny what they did, their eyes flicker around the camera screen- never looking straight at us, knowing (possibly) that they never can. Sambath's impassive questions turn into a kind of torture: in a quiet tone he asks them what it felt like to kill, why they killed and how many, forcing them into the prison of the past.

The impassivity is important: although Sambath is deeply bound into these memories because he like us did not see the massacres, he like us is exiled from the direct memory of the massacre. So he can be our proxy. When the killers discuss drinking the gall bladders of their victims or when they show him how to slit a throat or where the bodies lie, he like us can feel shock. These are the kind of details that became normal for those who committed the crimes- but for us and for Sambath they are revelations of barbarism. You are not supposed to discuss whether gall bladders taste bitter or not: to discuss that isolates you from the rest of human kind. Murder like anything else can become a habit. Its crucial that Sambath is involved and yet not involved: that his business is not reawakening his own memories, but finding out what happened to those he loved. He like the audience has to relive the killings through the memories of those who committed them: he keeps an admirable objectivity in his reporting, asking for details and inspecting sites, but in his commentary following each interview, he gives us an emotional response that we can empathise with. The interviews with the perpetrators reveal the way that murder has cut them off from society: they have experiences, they have guilt that they can neither communicate nor expunge.

The perpetrators do not seek to justify what happened, save by arguing that they followed orders. They appear to be stunned by the events they have participated in. The exception here is Nuon Chea, Brother Number 2. Nuon Chea is the only participant who is certain about the justice of his memory of events. He is interviewed and sits looking into the camera, unflinchingly. His answers are measured and come without anguish. He knows what he knows and he knows that it is right. His view is that those who were murdered were Enemies of the People, Enemies who had to be slaughtered lest the party fail in its reforms of the country. Self righteously Chea remains in his certainty: seeking even to impart that to others, to excuse their sins. He feels no guilt and his words are a power of themselves, certainty is convincing. Nuon Chea is definitely a clever and thoughtful man and when he speaks you feel yourself for a moment being seduced. Sambath though mixes the interview with his interviews of the perpetrators on the ground, with his own discussion of the consequences of massacre: we are never allowed to divorce the snake from his trail of slime. For that reason Nuon Chea's rhetoric is undermined and turned against himself: we find the reason for the murders in his certainty and his charisma, but Sambath's filming means that we are not persuaded.

Memory is important. So many Cambodians in the seventies were killed and that memory will stay within that society for as long as anyone reading this blog is alive. Just as the atrocities of the twentieth century in Europe remain alive, facts within the politics of the twenty first century, so will the Khmer Rouge's work in Cambodia. Sambath's dispassionate eye and his camera allow us to navigate different memories: his own memory of his brother, mother and father and their grisly fates, the memories of those who performed the bloody work out on the killing fields and the memory of the one who ordered it. What it presents is a picture that is complicated and difficult: Sambath never says what he thinks about this and never expresses his anger. When you contrast that with the anger of Nuon Chea, willing to denounce those whose blood stains his hands, you can see a moral distinction which is as clear as can be.