Vancouver International Film Festival 2008—Part 3

The oppressed and excluded

By David Walsh
20 October 2008

This is the third in a series of articles on the recent Vancouver International Film Festival (September 25-October 10).

It's not a small matter that documentary filmmakers bring to light the lives and conditions of some of the most oppressed and excluded people on earth, those considered expendable by the powers that be and the mass media.

The Infinite BorderSuch are the Central American immigrants in The Infinite Border, a serious and sincere portrait. The director, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, from Mexico, did a great deal of research on the mostly Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants, the majority of them young, who enter Mexico in hope of eventually crossing the US border.

A Honduran woman, making the journey, assures us that she's "as brave as five men." We believe her. A young Guatemalan in detention explains that Mexican police stole his money. Another lost his arm running for a train; amputees abound among the would-be immigrants. A young girl, traveling alone, explains that she's "scared." The travelers line the railway tracks, waiting for a train to climb aboard.

"Yesterday was the saddest day of my life," explains one of those interviewed. The Mexican immigration officials "are real bastards." Young people en route, four days of sleeping outside, or not sleeping, cold, hungry, wet. Striving for "our American dream." The film makes clear: the governments will never stop the immigrants. "To work and get ahead, that's all," says one migrant. Others, detained or deported, tell the camera, smilingly, without self-aggrandizement, that they'll never stop trying.

The film is made with considerable sympathy and sensitivity. It's not clichéd or cloying. A shot of a lengthy train passing the camera with hundreds of immigrants perched on or clinging to every car says a great deal. The Infinite Border is dedicated "To all of those crossing."

The documentary is carefully and pleasingly shot. In his notes, Sepúlveda complains there are currently in Mexico "a significant number of people who spend their lives making documentaries without the slightest intention of making cinema. ... For those of us who claim to make cinema, it seems obscene to wave the flag of defending human rights in order to pass a poorly made audiovisual off as a protest film when really, the only thing being sought is a place on the red carpet." Film, he later notes, "is more than good intentions and requires a profound process of reflection, and this process takes time, one of the basic building blocks of cinema." These are good points.

Paper Cannot Wrap Up EmbersRithy Panh, director of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, has made another film—Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers—about Cambodia's tragic condition, this time about a group of prostitutes living in a decrepit apartment building in Phnom Penh. A documentary, although at times the lines seem rehearsed, the film reveals the painful, almost unbearably painful circumstances of its subjects.

"We are low-life girls," says one. No one cares about these women, except, for obvious reasons, their pimps and madams. There are 300 "girls" in the building. We follow a few of them, including A'Da, who brought her sister into the profession and now watches her dying of AIDS. "My guilt holds me like a prisoner."

An "older" woman of 34, who looks 45, asks the others for help. One says: "How can I help you? ... I have nothing." Someone suggests she buy bad oranges and sell them at a profit.

Bits of conversation. "Your husband doesn't work, he beats you up." "What can I do? It's my fate." One woman had five children; four died and the fifth was stolen.

"This morning I saw the madam who sold me when I was a virgin. She made money off my sweat and blood."

What they do, one says, is "like lying down on a butcher's block ... They don't realize how much pain we feel." Simply: "We've been whoring because we're poor. ... Our society is corrupt." They discuss suicide too. They blame their situation on the US-led war of the 1970s and the Khmer Rouge.

One prostitute has received an offer from an "NGO lady" to buy her child for $300. It's intended as an act of charity. Another tells her: "You're a junkie. What future is there?"

A'Da, I think it is, tells the camera: "Justice favors the rich and mighty. We poor people are always guilty. We have no schooling, we're guilty. We whore to support our families, we die from AIDS, we're guilty. We're guilty for everything. Poor people can only expect to be guilty."

Lacerating material, although, again, not sensationalized. This is an indictment of a social order, whatever the director's intentions.

The BetrayalThe Betrayal in the title of the documentary by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath refers to the US government's conduct toward Laos, as well as other, more personal betrayals faced by Phrasavath and his family.

The footage in the film spans 23 years, from shots of the family in exile in Brooklyn in 1985 to the present day. Phrasavath's father threw his lot in with the American forces waging covert war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s, because they "paid more." We see President Richard Nixon blithely claiming that there were "no US combat forces" in Laos—a lie.

Phrasavath, doing his own narration, also explains that 3 million tons of US bombs were dropped on Laos during the American intervention in Southeast Asia. "One planeload of bombs every 8 minutes every 24 hours over 9 years." An estimated 260 million cluster bombs were dropped on the poverty-stricken country.

After the US pulled out of Laos, like Vietnam, the insurgents, the Pathet Lao, took power. Phrasavath's father was arrested for "re-education." The family assumed he died in prison. They eventually fled Laos for Thailand. After several years in a refugee camp, they made their way to the US.

Phrasavath's mother explains how excited she was to be in America, only "a step from heaven." It turned out to be farther than that. A grateful US government dumped the family in a "crack house" in Brooklyn, with "nothing to eat." They were "treated like rubbish." Later, the mother says, "For us old people, life in America is hell on earth."

Out of the blue, the supposedly dead father turns up. He, too, had escaped to Thailand, where he fought in the anti-communist resistance. He married again, had another family. Joy turns to sorrow as the father makes clear he's returning to his second family and abandoning his first again.

In 1998 Phrasavath attends the funeral of his half-brother, his father's son by his second wife, who was shot and killed in Florida. His father now says, "I regret what I did, assisting the US to destroy the country." The destruction done by the Americans was "indescribable."

The story is complicated and painful. Thavisouk Phrasavath strikes one as an honest and serious historical witness.

RevueRevue, it must be said, is just about the last word in the current school of passive documentary filmmaking. Director Sergei Loznitsa (born 1964 in Belarus) has scoured archives and assembled excerpts from Soviet newsreels, television programs, propaganda films and feature films of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He has not, however, added a single word of explanation or commentary.

In a 2006 interview, about another film, Blockade, he put forward his conception. "If I put in a voiceover, I offer my view, and that means I exclude the possibility of the viewer having his own view. He has either to agree with me or not agree with me."

If this comment didn't emanate from a society that has experienced a social and intellectual collapse of historic proportions, one would simply dismiss it as too foolish to reply to. Unfortunately, it is a further symptom of a deeply disoriented intelligentsia.

Loznitsa forgets that, first of all, his choice of overall subject matter, excerpts, order of shots and so forth already expresses his stance, even if that stance is simply ambivalence or confusion in the face of the material. We see certain things about the USSR, we don't see others.

In any event, it's impossible to draw any general conclusions, except about the quality of these particular pieces of footage. A thoughtful commentary would not oppress the spectator, but help him or her. The spectator is not empty-headed. He or she would have the capacity to make judgments about the filmmaker's viewpoint too.

In any event, the disparate material is fascinating in its own way. There are scenes of harsh conditions in wintertime, construction work, foundry and factory operations, scenes from a textile mill, collective farms and so forth. Also, propaganda messages about achievements, plans and quotas. Scenes from a courtroom; Nikita Khrushchev arriving in a city and speaking to cheering crowds; warnings about capitalist spies; denunciations of Western rock ‘n' roll.

And scenes from cultural life: folkloric orchestras and dance troupes, balalaikas humming. Little girls in perfect dresses, beaming. Also, we see sequences from a number of plays and films, mostly awful, although the actors seem talented and energetic. In one inspirational film, "Valya is going to the virgin territories." In one of the plays, set after the revolution, tired workers or villagers gripe, "It's not our job to unload coal." They are upbraided: "I gave my word to Lenin himself." That does the trick.

Denunciations of deserters and those who waste bread. But, anyway, "Our Russia is growing and growing." There is also a charming scene of school children asked what they want to be when they grow up. "A football player," "a pilot," "a doctor."

Absent a commentary or explanation that might shed new light on things, the viewer will naturally categorize the material according to his or her existing views on the USSR. Anti-communists will see the absurd, self-deluded propaganda and be confirmed in their convictions. The pro-Stalinist may see the valiant effort of the Socialist Motherland to develop and flourish, under trying conditions. Elements of the contemporary Russian population will burn with indignation over the bureaucracy's stupidity and oppressiveness; some others may long for the relatively stable economic and cultural conditions on view.

The film conveyed to me, above all, a strong sense of national isolation and provincialism, and the historical legacy of Russian backwardness. The individuals in the footage fell into various categories: self-serving officials, the cultural performers, ordinary workers and agricultural laborers. The official pronouncements are simply hollow. But even at this point no doubt many Soviet citizens still believed they were creating some sort of a new society. This was, after all, the period of the post-Stalin "thaw." Some possibilities seemed to have opened up.

What comes across strikingly, if implicitly, however, is the utopian, hopeless character of the attempt to create a modern, much less a socialist society apart from the rest of the world and its economic and cultural development.

The Longwang ChroniclesThe Longwang Chronicles, directed by Li Yifan (see interview), and Survival Song, directed by Yu Guangyi, are documentaries about very harsh conditions in the Chinese countryside.

The first work treats one year in the life of a poor Chinese village, "Dragon King Village," in the southwest. We see scenes of ordinary life, but also scenes with political and ideological significance.

The film opens with a discussion in the center of the village in which the local party secretary, Xiang Xinchun, is upbraiding a villager for his suspicions and mistrust of the regime. "The state's not trying to cheat you," she insists, an infallible guarantee that it's trying to do precisely that. We hear the slogan, and not for the last time: "Build the new socialist countryside." The villager's not convinced, and half-jokes that if he raises criticisms, he'll be taken off in handcuffs.

Then, interestingly, a title on the screen: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented," a famous passage from Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which the author describes the circumstances and character of the French peasantry.

Scenes of daily life: the planting of rice shoots, medical treatment for a baby, the castration of a pig, harvesting rape seed, crushing rocks essentially by hand for a new road—a great deal of back-breaking work, under primitive conditions.

What was a revelation to me was the presence of numerous Christian sects that have sprung up in the recent decades. What else is this but an expression of popular desperation, on the one hand, and the utter discrediting of the official ideology, on the other? Various cults, with exotic names ("Eastern Lightning" and such) and rituals, battle it out, while the pastor of the government-sponsored church struggles to suppress them.

Later, Li (born in 1966 in Chongqing) films a thoroughly rigged vote. Someone says, quite rightly, "Your elections are crap. The officials are all corrupt."

The director apparently shot the film over two years, a "lonely and long" process, he writes. He recorded the "pain" of the village over those two years, and "the deeper I fit into their lives, the more painful and conflicted I felt."

Survival SongSurvival Song, which treats a smaller bit of Chinese life, was filmed at the other end of the country, in the northeast. It is even bleaker.

A hunter, named Han, his wife and a homeless man, Xiao Li, live in an abandoned logging camp. The area has been deforested and, anyway, the government is going to clear the houses to build a reservoir for the city of Harbin.

Han and his ménage are asked to move. But they have nowhere to move to. Han has been laid off from the forestry service; now he herds and poaches to survive.

Xiao Li runs off with a "crazy woman" and returns to the angry couple, who depended on him to herd goats. "You should be ashamed," they tell him. "Slap yourself." He does, in the face, twice. Then they clear out a space for him in a shed, with only a plastic sheet against the cold. Existence is brutal and grim.

A crew comes to demolish the habitation. "Bastards," says Han, "they want bribes." And: "Who kicks a man out of his house in the dead of winter? They're forcing us to resist. Fucking corrupt officials." More: "This place is a hovel ... Communist Party, my ass!"

Later, things take a turn for the worse. Government inspectors confiscate the stores of "illegal" meat the family has set aside for the winter; Han flees and Xiao Li is arrested.

By the end of the film, Xiao Li has escaped and walked 25 hours through the mountains, arriving back at the logging camp frostbitten and exhausted. He's alone. Han is still gone and his wife has gone back to her parents.

The two films are not breakthroughs, socially or artistically, but they are honest pictures of a society polarized to a malignant and potentially explosive degree.