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A cinematic prayer

Graves Without a Name
Regissør: Rithy Panh
(Frankrike, Kambodsja)

Rithy Panh's cinematic excavation of the Cambodian genocide is entering its third decade, with at least five aesthetic attempts to approach it.


S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine (2003) was the first of Panh's films to reach a larger audience. The staging of confrontations between victims and guards at a notorious prison came almost ten years before Joshua Oppenheimer's epoch-making T (2012). The animated documentary The Missing Picture (2013) continued Panh's project, using similar approaches as Ari Folman in Waltz with bashir (2008), in an autobiographical account of his own experiences during the Pol Pot terror regime. Panh has also made less acclaimed dramas about the events, and more essayistic films, like Exile (2016)

The movie is looking for something intangible, yes, perhaps impossible: to heal.

 I Graves Without a Name the director weaves together essayistic voiceover, animation and talking heads with something new – rituals. The main elements of the film are scenes of seance-like, familiarity with the dead: candles are lit, water is sprinkled, rice is thrown, beans are messed, and it is all a search for murdered relatives who are doomed to roam forever time. Occasionally, two peasants tell horrible stories about the regime's atrocities, a voiceover recites poetic pondering from Resnais' Holocaust classic Night and Fog (1955) and other sources, and photographs of victims appear in and disappear from the landscape.

The unfathomable

After the screening, I happened to hear three audience members saying that they had not understood any of what was happening in the film. Panh had not given them enough context. It may be said that some knowledge of Panh's work – or at least a quick glance at the wikipedia article on the Cambodian genocide – had been a useful preparation for Graves Without a Name. Like many of the most interesting documentaries made in the last decade or so – the works of Oppenheimer, Sergei Loznitsa and Robert Greene, for example – are Graves Without a Name less concerned with authoritative narration than with the unfathomability of history, the need to rewrite it and rewrite it, to find new ways of approaching it. And, perhaps, even make peace with it.

NourbeSe Philip often says that her epic poems Zong! – about the murders in 1781 of 150 African slaves on board the slave ship of the same name – tells a story that can not be told, but which must still be told. I should probably use it as an epigram for half of the reviews I write. Talking about cruelty, historical trauma, or even current systemic injustice and violence, is anything but uncomplicated, and a significant number of works from the last ten years leave the key events as gaps, while talking about what can not talked about or mentioned by name, to see what it can accomplish. And it can accomplish a lot of different things. Based on this instinct, Oppenheimer has discovered an howl against injustice: Loznitsa a melancholy totem to the random and overwhelming forces of history; Greene, a surprisingly promising excavation. And Panh gives us a prayer.

This is as close as I can get to a categorization of Graves Without a Name: a cinematic prayer. If the film feels difficult to obtain, it is because it is looking for something intangible, yes, perhaps impossible: to heal.

Previously published in
P.O.V. Magazine.

Daniel Glassman
Daniel Glassman
Glassman lives in Toronto and writes about film and music. See also

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