Most of Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s family were killed in Khmer Rouge labor camps. He was lucky enough to get out and, after months in a Thai refugee camp, move to Paris where he eventually went to film school. His adult years have been spent making innovative, impressionistic documentaries about Cambodia’s terrible years of struggle, mingled with personal memories.
More recently, as with his last film Irradiated, he has launched himself at an increasingly broad canvas showing how shockingly cruel people can be, juxtaposing war footage from numerous conflicts and such familiar signifiers of evil as the Nazi death camps. If you had the temerity to summarize his work so far, you could say that he has spent decades telling us that everything is absolutely not OK.
His new film, Berlin competition entry Everything Will Be OK, begins with a fairytale — illustrated with Panh’s trademark dioramas of clay figurines — of an ogre coming to a village and enslaving both people and animals. The ogre of the story is gradually revealed to be a king-pin wild boar, which has a gold effigy of itself erected in the middle of the defeated kampong. Eventually, that statue will be crowned with a bristling ring of surveillance cameras. “Ideology is an ogre,” reflects the French voiceover, spoken by Rebecca Marder.
There is something else looming over Rithy Panh’s disturbing dioramas: the shadow of Jean-Luc Godard. His influence, acknowledged by Panh, is everywhere. Like the great Swiss auteur in his later essay films, Panh plaits together images in counterpoint to the musings of an often gnomic commentary. Panh is fascinated — as is Godard — by language and the ways in which it can be twisted or misread. At the same time, language is our great hope: during the burning of the world, we are told, “there will still be poetry.”
You couldn’t really call Everything Will Be OK a documentary, at least as the term is usually understood, but it is absolutely rammed with information: you may be baffled, but rarely bored. The screen splits frequently to show a spread of pictures – sometimes multiple images, sometimes repeated. A black screen fills with a gallery of houses being blown up and forests being felled. People march, are beheaded on camera, work in factories. Rockets blast off to the moon. “Starting everything over? What a lie!” exclaims Marder’s voice. “Songs of life and death are not confidential,” she tells us later, as naked children are seen swimming in a river — a rare bucolic image.
Through all this exuberant picture-scaping we keep returning to the clay world, where nothing goes well: a temple is devastated, humans are roped together and masked while the animal elite takes charge and the wild ones — those less equal than others — hide in the decimated jungle. When they are not in the village, the ruling tusked boars relax in a TV control room, also sculpted with clay, gleefully watching home movies of their own successful scorched-earth victory. “Those in power keep watching us,” says the commentary. “They even control images.”
Panh weaves and piles up sounds in the same way he does pictures. At any one moment, the soundtrack may be layered with squawking birds, the insistent pounding of an axe, dense electronic music and, over all of this, the voice of our guiding philosophe. No longer fixed on his own country’s tempestuous history — although the killing fields piled with skulls are immediately identifiable — Panh gives us an encyclopedia of horrors: war, the destruction of nature, our cruelty to each other and to animals. All these elements are too many and too disparate to absorb as specifics, but they coalesce into a general impression of doom.
What we can do with all thus information is another matter. That we have made a terrible mess of things is clear enough. In his director’s statement, Panh says he wondered if animals would do any better. Not if pigs are in charge, you might say — and aren’t the pigs always in charge, once the revolution is over?
Maybe not. Here is a woman in the Amazon, giggling as she suckles a baby monkey — an initially shocking image, but her luminous smile puts us at ease. “I’ll take you to the forest. That’s where I’m from,” says Marder’s voice. Yes, some people are cutting it down for profit. “But some can hear the spirits in the new season.” There is something lovely in that, but it doesn’t seem much of a defense against the cascade of destruction we have witnessed for the last two hours. If anything, the chances of everything being OK now seem slimmer than ever.