Everything Will Be Ok (2022)
September 28 – October 23, 2022
The latest two films of Cambodia-born filmmaker Rithy Panh, Everything Will Be Ok (2022) and Irradiés (2020), are premiering in North America at MoMA, as part of the first-ever retrospective of his thirty-year-long career. The program also includes early films and classics, such as Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy (1996), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), The Sea Wall (2008), and The Missing Picture (2013).
As with other allegorical works of Panh, Irradiés aims at understanding the root causes of evil while Everything Will Be Ok is devoted to evil’s evolution and morphologies. Both award-winning films retrace a twentieth century of genocide, colonial, and postcolonial mass horrors in Homeric and figurative amplitude, each with actress Rebecca Marder’s voiceover narrating a postlapsarian lyrical tale of humans fighting against their own worst tendencies.
In Irradiés, Panh repositions the role of technology from an enabler of human progress to a facilitator of mass murder. He touches upon the complexity of survivor’s guilt through a dynamic and expansive use of archival news footage, from WWI to the Cold War, in an experimental long format, discussing human exposure to various actual and metaphorical types of irradiation. Nothing captures this harrowing and indiscriminate illustration more than the devastating A-bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy-seven years ago. Familiar images of desolation carry new meaning under the artistic craftsmanship of Panh. Atomic mushrooms are superimposed with the rebuilding of a makeshift paper house, conveying the futile, absurd, and at times, tragic nature of human efforts towards reconstruction and healing.
Everything Will Be Ok deploys Panh’s interest in animation to discuss one of the filmmaker’s recurring themes: the totality of violence, which now further encompasses the destructive nature of totalitarianism in mass surveillance societies and debrided capitalism. Using carved dolls, a form already explored in The Missing Picture, the film tells the story of the rising power of animals over humans, with boars and other animals reigning over captive, terrified humans. The carved dolls introduce stiffness and a degree of replicability which reinforces a dystopian landscape, where characters are seemingly voiceless and interchangeable. The city’s main square borrows visual elements from Phnom Penh after the arrival of the Khmer Rouge emptied its streets and forced the large-scale displacement of urban residents in 1975. The limitless authority of “Boar number 1” is embodied in a bold statue; he holds an iPhone and a little red book. Surveillance cameras and screens project offensive and alienating content, such as obscene mukbang videos in which a young woman indulges in devouring a live octopus on her social media feed. Power and control are an addictive form of gluttony, we are made to understand.
Color is mostly absent in the night-time animation; it’s a darkness in which freedom, life, and the notion of time have been suspended. Warmth and saturation only arise when we visit an unspecified, unpopulated location that comes across as a symbolic graveyard of history. There, Panh’s camera lingers over forgotten monuments such as the Parthenon and Stonehenge, which are now submerged under the sands of a post-apocalyptic Martian landscape.
In this iconography of multilayered trauma, violence is a human vice that must be confronted, even if in its most revolting and nauseous incarnations. Panh doesn’t shy away from crude and unbearable scenes. For instance, Irradiés depicts emaciated, distorted bodies being thrown into a pile in raw archive footage of mass graves. We want to avert our gaze, of course, and this is what the filmmaker reveals: our weak tendency to escape, to deny, to minimize—because it’s convenient and comfortable. In Everything Will Be Ok, Panh exposes animal cruelty in abattoirs and processing factories. Violence is for Panh a lived encounter and he approaches its expression in crude images. Yet, one wonders if this choice of images over other media (sound, for instance)—forcing us to lean in (to understand what’s going on and where this is going) and reject them fully once we do understand that violence is just that, violence—is most effective in conveying the gripping intensity of dread and horror. Many of these scenes are simply unbearable.
Panh views the rise of the Khmer Rouge and their crimes against humanity in historical terms. In archival footage, the eastward trains to Auschwitz converse with the trains out of Phnom Penh. The barracks of Poland and Cambodia are metaphorically made of the same infrastructure of destruction. The lethal gas first deployed in the trenches of WWI and other sinister experimentations—Zyklon B, napalm—belong to a similar macabre desire to annihilate human life. Humans committed a sacrilege in manipulating such a dangerous and unstable technology; they stole a sacred fire they couldn’t control. But the film does not account for many “low-tech” atrocities, such as the meticulous fury of machetes in Rwanda in 1994.
Panh’s interpretation of irradiation is first an emotion, a stupor. In revisiting personal and collective trauma, he attempts to confront the ghosts of the past—a disappeared sibling as much as lost innocence. Panh’s archeological and ruminative approach to memory is demonstrated in his several channel screens—a technique he used in his last two films. Images split across the screen, merge, fuse. Instead of following one scene, we follow multiple ones at the same time, in duplicated loops. They often repeat, akin to the PTSD-fueled thoughts of survivors and witnesses, an infernal cycle of inescapability and alienation.
Resistance to this attraction towards death is nurtured in love, life, and all their beauty. We’re reminded of this as Panh contrasts horror and grace. Irradiés honors Būto, a Japanese traditional dance, a slow choreography inserted between scenes of mass violence. We see a dancer tearing off his painted skin, a metaphor for shedding an irradiated, contaminated membrane. The fallen ashes of atomic bombs blend into modern footage of Hanami, Japan’s yearly cherry blossom festival.
Irradiés conveys universality in suffering and war-induced disorientation, from European to Asian fronts, including Dresden, Birkenau, Coventry, Le Havre, Sarajevo, and Tokyo—cities the voiceover describes as “irradiated.” Save for a brief reference to the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Myanmar in Everything Will Be Ok (the title borrowed from a sentence featured on the t-shirt of a teenage protester killed in Myanmar), Panh’s latest works give the overall impression of a frozen time, of an inability to address the persistence of today’s violence.
Mass-scale destruction and violence haven’t stopped since some thirty years ago. Where are Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, or China? Similarly, fleeting references to COVID-19 in Everything Will Be Ok—masks, white blouses, syringes—add a contemporary touch but fail to connect with the overall narrative of the film. Do these allusions to the pandemic offer another iteration of our collective failure to act and prevent death? Or do they accelerate an irresistible march towards state-sponsored surveillance? We don’t really know, and while ambiguous references to the pandemic serve to establish the labyrinthine mysteries of memory by reminding of a narrator’s unreliability, they also blur Panh’s overall attempt at renegotiating the present and imagining a future based on lessons from the past.
Panh’s personal experience of the Khmer Rouge brutality (several of his family members did not survive, and he eventually sought refuge in Thailand, then France) has shaped his entire filmography, which he conceives as an altar to victims and survivors. “I am the archive,” says the voiceover in his latest films, echoing an amalgamation between the artist and his art. Panh believes in the power of transmission and storytelling to prevent further wrongdoings. There is little distance between subject and object in his philosophy of cinema. The magic of film lies in this intimacy.