“SHOW AND TELL” SERIES INTRODUCTION: As Michael Frisch astutely observes in A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (2002): “Oral history has been very much at the methodological center of a wave of highly successful documentary films…” (pg. 147). And yet, the third and most recent edition of Bill Nichols’s go-to text Introduction to Documentary (2017) is only the first to include any discussion of oral history — and what’s there isn’t really that much (a few fleeting references, really). It seems, then, that Frisch is also correct that oral history’s “particular characteristics as a mode for presenting history to audiences have been easy to take for granted” (pg. 147).
In addition, the great oral historian Alessandro Portelli notes in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (1997) that, “as far as [he has] been able to see, [his field has] failed to consistently develop an analytical, let alone a scholarly form of video presentation…” (pg. 15). While there’s certainly been progress in terms of thinking about the audiovisual presentation of oral history since he wrote this — Douglas A. Boyd’s work comes immediately to mind — there’s not been that much when it comes to thinking about the more robustly cinematic work that represents what we might call “the oral historical mode” in documentary filmmaking.
All this lack of attention is that much more surprising when one considers the often incredible quality of the films that fit this bill — Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls (2018), to name just a few. This series of blog posts, entitled “Show and Tell”, will put some much-needed focus on these and other trailblazing works. The point is simply to see what emerges when we don’t take the oral historical mode of documentary filmmaking for granted.
In a video interview with the magazine Canada’s History, preeminent oral historian Alessandro Portelli remarks:
You know, you’re always taught the interview is not about yourself. “You’re a fly on the wall.” And I always say, “If I see a fly on the wall, my instinct is to squash it.” You’re not there, like, as an adjunct to the tape recorder to collect the stories; but you’re actually there as a co-author to create the stories because the stories are being told to you. They’re not being told in the abstract.
Though not necessarily the most obvious guideline for interviewing, this bit of wisdom is certainly something we can see reflected in the greatest of documentaries made in the oral historical mode. Think, for example, of how Claude Lanzmann’s own sense of purpose encourages so many of the narrators in Shoah (1985) to dig deep into their memories. Or how Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) is suffused with and energized by the righteous anger of not only the narrators but also the outspoken director himself.
But perhaps the clearest cinematic exemplifier of Portelli’s lesson is Rithy Panh’s 2018 film Graves Without a Name — a recent entry in the Cambodian-French auteur’s ever-growing corpus of masterpieces focused on the genocide in Cambodia. (The most recent entry, Irradiated, was the recipient of the Documentary Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which took place just before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered most everything.)
Panh was the lone survivor of his family’s internment in Khmer Rouge work camps, and his documentaries seek to shed light on various aspects of life under the regime, as well as understand their after-effects. But this is not to say that his films are prosaic exercises in personal testimony or reportage. As Panh writes in his memoir The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields (pg. 247):
My films are oriented toward knowledge; everything is based on reading, reflection, research work. But I also believe in form, in colors, in light, in framing and editing. I believe in poetry.
Indeed, the form is always as striking as the content in each and every one of Panh’s films. 2003’s S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, for example, returns personnel to the infamous, titular prison for re-enactments of their crimes against humanity. (Among other things, the film was an enormous influence on Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and their anonymous co-director’s widely-praised 2012 documentary The Act of Killing.) 2013’s Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture brilliantly uses clay figurines to visualize the otherwise undocumented story of Panh’s family after “Year Zero.” And 2016’s meditative Exile employs actors in its efforts to illustrate the filmmaker’s interior monologue.
With Graves Without a Name, Panh once again finds creative inspiration on the trail of the elusive. As the synopsis in the film’s press kit reads:
When a thirteen-year-old child, who lost the better part of his family under the Khmer Rouge, embarks on a search for their graves, whether clay or on spiritual ground, what does he find there? And above all, what is he looking for? Spectral trees? Villages defaced beyond recognition? Witnesses who are reluctant to speak? The ethereal touch of a brother or sister’s body as the night approaches?
Panh’s seeking here incorporates some of the ideas and visual motifs introduced in his earlier films but also introduces some important new elements, including especially oral history. “I want to talk to you,” Panh says to his deceased family members through a voiceover (which is performed by actor Randal Douc), “but I’ll talk to the living.” Graves Without a Name, then, features extended excerpts of the filmmaker’s interviews with two unidentified, aging peasant farmers. These narrators speak candidly, and sometimes quite startlingly so, about their experiences in the Khmer Rouge work camps. (Moments such as the one that begins with one of the narrators describing the vital importance of each forced laborer’s personal spoon will likely not be forgotten by those who see the film.)
That said, the methodology does quite a lot in and of itself. For one thing, any oral history recording is, generally speaking, an important step forward in terms of historical preservation in Cambodia. This is something Panh understands all too well as co-founder of the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an organization dedicated to “restoring and enhancing the Cambodian audiovisual memory, with archives, production and screening activities.” As he explains in an interview with Meniscus Magazine:
I think we…have to help to restore our history or identity. A few centuries ago, we did not record our oral history because people did not know how to write. Only a few people knew how to write, how to read. So we have machines to record [now, but] we lost a lot of things. Our society is oral, it’s not like the Chinese where there’s a big, great writer or historian who writes things. In Cambodia, most of the time people tell stories, the children talk, etc. … That is why we have to set up a policy to restore, to digitize, to record.
And, of course, the act of oral history interviewing has a uniquely powerful, even emancipatory quality in the more specific context of recent Cambodian history. As Panh tells IndieWire:
Part of the Khmer Rouge project was not only to destroy individual people, but to destroy the very notion of the individual. I want to simply rebuild the stories of people — it’s part of my fight against the Khmer Rouge agenda.
The use of oral history, then, is just as radical as any of Panh’s more boldly pronounced artistic flourishes. “…Because they reflect a place in time where creativity meant death, they celebrate creativity more powerfully,” Kevin B. Lee says of The Missing Picture‘s clay figurines in an epistolary video essay. We could say the very same thing about the oral histories in Graves Without a Name.
Circling back to Portelli, Panh’s use of oral history also serves to deepen the introspective qualities of what is first and foremost an “essay film”. As Portelli explains in that aforementioned clip, oral history narrators “tell the story to the kind of person they think you are, and therefore you’re sort of mirrored in there. And that creates the dialogic element whereby you’re sort of called into questions every time.” Accordingly, the narrators in Graves Without a Name speak about things in explicitly spiritual terms, seemingly with the assumption that Panh shares their animistic beliefs. This, in turn, has the director wondering if his actual frame of reference hasn’t come with certain limitations. Early in the film, Panh muses:
There is magic. And there’s a magic world, naturally. You, who doesn’t talk to the dead; you, who lives in images; you, who believes he knows; you, who’s rushed by life; you, who makes fun or shivers; you, who kept talking, rub your eyes. Look.
And so, when it isn’t making space for its extraordinary oral history interviews, Graves Without a Name follows Panh as he puts himself into the hands of various practitioners of popular religious rites and rituals. “The bones of the film are scenes of séance-like communion with the dead,” writes Daniel Glassman in his exceptionally thoughtful review of the film for Point of View Magazine. “Candles are lit, water is flicked, rice is tossed, prayers are chanted, all in search of murdered relatives left to wander in perpetuity.” Among other things, we also see Panh’s head shaved by Theravada Buddhist monks; ostensibly successful and unsuccessful attempts by spirit mediums to channel his deceased family members; and ultimately a funeral that powerfully joins together the elements of a traditional ceremony with the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic artistic tableau.
In making Graves Without a Name, Panh seems to have intuited something about the importance of religion that should be familiar to oral historians — specifically, its uniquely revelatory capacity. As Marie A. Pelletier writes in her essay “Finding Meaning in Oral History Sources Through Storytelling and Religion” for editor Steven High’s excellent book Beyond Testimony and Trauma: Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence (pg. 333-4):
…[R]eligion can provide a uniquely useful window into the meaning interviewees give to events by providing a framework through which they try to explain all aspects of life. When an interviewee’s life story must integrate and explain the experiences of genocide, a religious framework (assuming there is one) can draw attention to how she/he makes sense of these violent experiences as well as to how these experiences challenge her/his worldview. Thus, we can move beyond treating survivors’ life stories only as testimony to genocide and also look at what they tell us about how survivors experienced and remembered violent events.
The “religious framework” here most definitely “[draws] attention to how” the two narrators in Graves Without a Name “[make] sense of [their] violent experiences as well as to how these experiences challenge [their] worldview.” But it does this for Panh the self-reflexive artist as well, allowing him to go even further in his career-long project of contemplating how the Cambodian genocide is “experienced and remembered.” As he says in the final moments of the film:
Those who talk to the dead have experienced violence and elimination. They’ve worked while being beaten, they’ve dug graves. They’ve seen blood on spades. I’m familiar with the image of death imprinted in them. The past embraces us. You, who fears the other world, learn now to perform the gestures, over and over again.
Again, I’m very hard-pressed to think of a documentary in the oral historical mode that better epitomizes Portelli’s point about the dialogical nature of interviewing than Graves Without a Name. And not only that, but the film also conveys this reality in robustly and distinctly cinematic ways. So much so, in fact, that one recurring image even manages to visualize Portelli’s lesson perfectly all by itself: Panh and his narrators constructing the outdoor tableaux together (as shown in the picture above). If the notion of oral history as a co-creation of the narrator and the interviewer was missing a picture, Rithy Panh has surely provided it.
You can watch Graves Without a Name for free online with a public library card at Kanopy. Digital copies can also be purchased or rented via iTunes, and DVDs can be purchased through the First Run Features website.
To read other entries in the “Show and Tell” series, please follow this link.