Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh is one of the great experimenters, tackling the topic of his nation’s history from every conceivable angle. He’s made vérité documentaries, narrative features and films that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. His last film, the Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture, used clay figurines to reenact scenes from the violent and oppressive regime of the Khmer Rouge. Now, with France Is Our Mother Country, he has taken the same steady hand to the raw material of cinema.
The film is made up entirely of archival footage from the colonial period, mostly from Southeast Asia. Panh’s native Cambodia was held by France from 1863 to 1953, spending most of that time as part of French Indochina, a territorial cobbling together with Laos and Vietnam. This near-century was characterized by economic exploitation, violent suppression of uprisings, and the imposition of Western-style education. Yet Panh’s project is not simply the illumination of these abuses. Rather, France Is Our Mother Country is a provocation of questions that dislodge the underlying ideologies of European imperialism.
His strategy, therefore, is a bit more conceptual than recent “historical vérité” documentaries like Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners or Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn. The most obvious difference is its intertitles, used not as an informational aide but as a rhetorical tool. Dressed up in the elaborately designed frames of the silent era, they contain messages such as “Working for the mother country is a party,” and “There are no longer borders.” They parrot the faith and practice of colonialism, sometimes to absurd degrees.
The footage around the intertitles often undermines these statements through juxtaposition. Messages about how France “extracts” and “shares” natural resources are paired with footage of quarries and factories, but none of the workers doing the actual extracting are French and none of the wealth will be shared with Cambodians. However, it is not always so simple. Other colonial buzzwords, regarding the “enigmatic and simple” character of the people, the “sensual and submissive” nature of the women and the status of Indochinese cultures as “without history” are left to linger. These words are just as obviously fraudulent, but Panh allows them more time to weigh upon the minds of the audience.
After all, discomfort is likely a more intellectually productive effect than revulsion. Just as each concocted slogan is the result of false but well-intentioned propaganda, so is each archival image the result of a negotiation between the native subject and the (presumably) colonial eye behind the camera. That French rhetoric simultaneously negated and depicted the people of Cambodia is a complicated point to make, and one that requires a dialog between text and image. Panh takes after the dialectic montage of Dziga Vertov, particularly the more explicitly propagandistic strategies of A Sixth Part of the World or Three Songs About Lenin.
Yet the style of France Is Our Mother Country is also unmistakably of the 21st century. The score, by frequent Panh collaborator Marc Marder, moves back and forth between nostalgic impressions of the genres we associate with silent cinema and the unsettling soundscapes of contemporary music. Any quaintness is banished and replaced with a peculiar tone, akin to science fiction. The result is a mood similar to the eerie ambiguities of the fount-footage work of Bill Morrison. Rather than naturalizing colonialism, the dialog between sound, image and text casts French imperialism as a bizarre irregularity that exists almost outside of time.
Eventually, Panh switches gears and addresses the end. Resistance movements emerge, the French respond. There is some remarkable footage of paratroopers jumping out of planes, soldiers with a mission to maintain the supposedly beneficent empire after its time has passed. Images of Cambodia as paradise for white colonists pass across the screen, elegant French women in haute-couture posing next to locals in traditional garb. Suddenly new, brashly different intertitles read more ambiguous messages. “An empire believing it has a mission is a lost empire.”
Is this resolution? Not quite. The independence of Cambodia hardly solved all of the nation’s problems, and the horrors that followed later emerge in Panh’s other films. Yet the conclusion of France Is Our Mother Country does facilitate at least one revelation. The commitment to dialog, a dialectic between sound image and word, finally underlines the impossibility of such a single-minded worldview as that of the colonist. Everything requires a closer look. As Panh’s closing message reads, “There is no universal history.”