France is Our Mother Country

La France est notre patrie, directed by Rithy Panh, is a film about the stories and the horrors of the French occupation of Cambodia. Made up entirely of footage, particularly propaganda footage, from the time period (mid-19th century), the film juxtaposes the wealth and class of Cambodia and its French people who changed their culture and way of living. Rather than voiceover, the french words are projected between clips of footage. They have messages like “working for the mother country is a joy” and “one day the people without history will thank France for their benevolent tutelage”. The images are often very contrasting to the theme or message of the text before it.

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Rithy Panh was born in Cambodia and was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge labor camps. He escaped to Thailand then, at age 16, Panh moved to Paris where he remained to study film at IDHEC (Institute for the Advanced Cinematographic Studies). Panh stated in an interview, “J’ai voulu faire un montage, et puis laisser les gens regarder les images… Mais peu importe l’âge ou l’origine des spectateurs – ici il y avait des jeunes métisses de la deuxième génération, des jeunes de l’immigration chinoise, algérienne… dans la salle – chacun s’empare de cette histoire de l’époque coloniale.” This translates, roughly, to Panh saying he simply wanted people to make a montage and have people look at the images, he was surprised at the diversity in the audience and noted that everyone found a way to connect with the colonial time period.

Interview with Rithy Panh

Rithy Pahn also said in this interview that “il n’y a pas beaucoup de films sur cette histoire.Vous sentez que vous avez une double culture. Et c’est important de répondre à ces questions pour éviter tout malentendu”, translating to ‘there are not a lot of films about this history. One might think there is a double culture so it is important to respond to these questions in order to fully understand’. When asked about the film’s influence from or toward Charlie Hebdot, Panh responded “l’histoire de la colonisation est compliquée et complexe. Elle doit être vue de plusieurs côtés. En même temps, c’est notre histoire : la souffrance est commune, elle est collective. Donc, il faut y aller d’une manière franche et sincère pour voir des choses”, meaning ‘the history of colonization is complicated and must be seen from many points of view. At the same time, this is our history: suffering is common, it is collective. So, you have to have a frank and sincere way to see things’. I think that all of this is important in understanding how Panh made this movie and what kind of director he is. Panh obviously hopes for people to watch this film and have their own perspective about it, as long as that perspective takes into account both sides and the time period.

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My artwork:

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-I made this collage with tissue paper and black and white drawings on a canvas
-The film was mostly in black and white, but slowly transitioned into color, so my artwork, especially the girl’s hair, represents that transition
-One of the more powerful images in the film was of a man lying on the ground, dead. Before the shot, french text was projected translating to “if the motherland is threatened we will take up arms”. Then after the shot of the dead man the film projected “one day the people without history will thank France for their benevolent tutelage”
-The question mark on the man’s face represents one of the themes throughout the movie of questioning identity

 

Video Clip

I took a closer look at this particular video clip which uses text and racial contrast to show the disparity between the white men and the cambodian people. The text used in this part of the movie includes “Les indigènes sont habiles à ces travaux collectifs”, meaning ‘the natives are adept at this type of collective work’, and “Le travail pour la patrie est une fête”, meaning ‘the work for the country is a party’. A shot of a white man holding a gun and smoking a cigarette is juxtaposed with a clip of Cambodian people working in a field. The gun is used as a symbol of power in this scene and throughout the entire film. This scene especially shows the exploitation of younger women with the clips of nearly naked women carrying baskets on their heads and hundreds of women working in the fields. The music is sparse and cold until the end of this scene when it says ‘the work is a party’, then the music becomes upbeat and happy to show that the sound and text do not at all represent the intensity of the labor.

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Watching this movie at the Alamo Drafthouse in the mission as a part of CAAMFest gave me a unique point of view on this film. There was a variety of people in the audience, but the majority of them seemed to be avid film festival enthusiasts. The film was abstract and up for interpretation, so I feel that everyone in the audience had their own personal takeaway from the film (perhaps with the exception of the man who fell asleep next to me and was snoring throughout the film). By solely using footage from the time period Rithy Panh was able evoke powerful feelings in the audience and even a few tears.

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