Stylized Realism

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Film realism emanates from incidents and the world people live in, that inspire stories that knit into strong documentary, social and political elements. Realistic details in film can build up a liberal critique of time and places.

Burning Bush
Agnieska Holland’s ‘Burning Bush’ (Czech Republic, 2013, colour, 240 mins, HD Cam) has a film title inspired by the Old Testament, and focuses on Czechoslovakia post-1968. Shot in Prague, the movie starts in 1969, after freedom exploded in 1968. Freedom died quickly and quietly, as Soviet and Polish tanks rolled in. But some Czechs and Slovaks tried to preserve some part of the freedom. It is, January 1969. A young student, Jal Palach (Lucas Cernoch), put himself on fire, protesting against the passivity of the people. Polish Holland, the film maker, was a student in Prague at the time. The debut of the film is in black and white, as young people dance. Tanks are rolling along the road. Tanks fire and the injured and dead are lying on the road. Stretcher carriers are in haste.

On 21 August 1968, the Russian army and Warsaw troops had invaded Poland. A hand held camera follows Palach, as he sprinkles petrol and strikes a match, and flees across the road. Comrade Major Jires (Ivan Trojan) examines the site, and investigates whether Palach belonged to a larger organization.

Students gather around Wenceslas Square. There are police firings and run-ins with the secret police following. A student informs on other students. General strike attempts, and eventual dissolution of the students union by the communists. The nation is in despair, and a group has decided to burn themselves. The hospital doctor does not allow the police inspector to see Palach, as he is fighting for his life. Palach’s father has been informed on telephone. His brother (Petr Starch) and his mother (Jaroslava Pokorna) hold vigil at his bedside. Police question girl students from the university and the performing arts. Students remove Lenin’s statue from a pedestal, and replace it with a clay caste of Palach. As newspapers report that burning was an act of right-wing extremism, Palach’s mother is keen to sue for defamation. While Palach remains ghost in narrative, a woman lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova) represents Palach’s mother and brother in court, and sue senior government officials for libel, and produces misstatements by politicians. Dagmar’s husband (Jan Budar) is wrongly accused of slander, and brought before a disciplinary committee. When legal assistant Vladimir’s (Adrian Jastraban) daughter is arrested at a students’ rally, Vladmir steals a crucial file from Buresova’s cupboard, and delivers to secret police, to clear his daughter’s record. Major Jires has differences with his supervisor Major Docekal (Igo Bares) and flees for the western border with family. Police handover personal belongings to Palach’s mother. At the cemetery, Palach’s mother finds a lamp has been removed from the grave. Security is everywhere, and at night there are intruders in Palach’s mother’s house. August 1969 is the first anniversary of the invasion of the Czech Republic. There are mass rallies, and security forces clash with demonstrators. TV announces that the vast majority of workers did not participate in the mayhem. There are no official documents in the archives to prove Palach’s collaboration. A magistrate reads a prepared verdict; truth is what is beneficial to the nation. Czech socialism is under threat. Palach’s coffin is shifted from the graveyard, and pushed into an incinerator. The grave is replaced by another dead man’s stone. Palach’s mother cries : ‘where is my son?’

It is January 1989. Photos of Palach adorn phone booths and subways. 1989 saw the largest demonstration against communism; and totalitarianism collapsed in 1990. Holland’s film is dedicated to all those who sacrificed their lives in the struggle for freedom. The script by Holland, and Martin Strba’s piquant camera movements search for sense and salvation. While the wearing down of the opposition is captured, the film swings from political semantics to investigative drama, to thriller. The vivid sense of oppression is always present from self immolation to police excesses. The protests and the legal suits culminate in 1989.

The Missing Picture
A childhood survivor of the Khymer Rouge’s labour camps of 1970s Cambodia, Rithy Pann’s ‘The Missing Picture’ (Cambodia/France, 96 mins, colour, 2013) is a documentary that creates some of his experiences of that period, by means of tableaux peopled with small clay models. The screenplay by Rithy Pann and commentary by Christopher Bataille is a meditation on remembrance, and an account of the Khymer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia. The commentary, read in French, accompanies the dioramas, which though lacking in realism, acknowledge the impossibility of full recapturing the past. There is a striking air of honesty in the little figures of clay, images, words, simplicities and childlike figures, placed in primitive or pitiless landscapes, along with interpolations of propaganda footage, made by the Khymer Rouge regime. The credits appear on film reels and containers. Girls in costume, crowns and jewellery dance in the background of sea with furious waves. In the middle of life, childhood returns to a fifty-year-old film maker. Memories, fears, hopes spring up in a background of shadows, sculptures, small statutes, water, the dead, the living and a man drowning. Dolls make up life in the olden days of Phonm Penh, with bustling markets, dogs, people, vendors and a time of studies and books. Black and white footage highlight the year of 1970, and people are crying. Phonm Penh is surrounded by the Khymer Rouge, who enter the capital in 1975. The central bank blows up with all the money. Two million people are on the road, and homes are abandoned. Mannequins are in a goods train, on single rail track. Families are separated, and mannequins-soldiers stand in front of burnt buildings. People flee to the countryside in the dry season. The image of Phonm Penh is the missing picture. There are no more individuals, but only numbers. Clothes are dyed black, new names are given, and bourgeoisie and capitalists are destroyed.

All society is organized in collectives, and the military is the new organization. People march with baskets on poles in Angkor. Each individual is a revolutionary. Pictures can be stolen, but thoughts cannot. Clay figures attend study sessions. There would be no more hunger, fatigue and injustice. The new society is free of the forces of rich and poor, and class divisions. Guns and red flags are profuse over concrete dams and embankments. Clay figures obey and dig earth and rocks. Slogans continue. Black and white live footage highlight road construction, and removal of bolders. There is acute scarcity of water. A saucepan is considered individualistic, and everything is shared. Hunger becomes the new weapon, and food rations are reduced for those who disobey, and those who are ill. The authorities aim to have a man of metal. Singing of the ‘Internationale’ brings in the leadership of Khieu Sampan. The capital remains empty for four years. Khymer Rouge torture chambers are photographed. There are exhibitions of photos, of those executed. One does not film with impunity the sublime blood of workers and peasants, and child labourers. Rockets in outer space, and Americans on the moon are not believed. The earth is parched, and dust buries everything. It is strange to drink mud water, with animals. Famine strikes, and 250 gms of rice per day is allotted for seven people. The dead are carried on sheet metals. Panh’s father, from a poor family, dies. Schools become extermination centres, in a land that hates knowledge. Spades replace the pen, and cultivation fields replace paper. Film stock is collected, cinemas closed, artists are executed or sent to labour camps, and film burns. Pol Pot was the revolution, who lived in ideology. Rousseau, Marx and Pol Pot comprised perfect society.

In the radiant revolution, there were no more bank notes, no more private property, and the new people were re-educated in rice fields. No objects are retained from imperialists and feudal society. Sometimes an aircraft appears in the sky. On earth there is hunger, mud and dirty water, while slogans continue. A hungry little girl steals corn from an open field, and is punished. Children chew salt at night. Fishing is forbidden, but there are hundreds of fishes. Since April 1975, Panh never returned home. 1977 witnessed the great leap forward of spade, shovel and ideology. There was a great flood in 1978. Truth is difficult to discover, and Prum Messa’s camera remains triumphant in the revolution of cinema. The intricate clay figurines represent the unfilmed, unphotographed images that inspired the film’s title. The political convulsions in Cambodia of 1975-79 are at times juxtaposed with figurines and footage, creating a haunting effect.

Vol. 47, No.11-14, Sep 21 - Oct 18 2014